U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations

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From its inception in 1959 until its demise in 1996, the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) was an independent, bipartisan agency that was created by Congress to monitor and study the federal government’s relationships with state and local governments, and to promote stronger coordination and communication among levels of government. To accomplish these goals, it regularly convened federal, state, and local officials to consider key issues; monitored conditions in the intergovernmental system; investigated the effects of policy, fiscal, or regulatory changes to the federal system; provided technical assistance to governments; and recommended changes in laws, regulations, or practices to improve relations between governments and achieve greater balance in responsibilities and allocation of resources. The Commission consisted of twenty-six members: six members of Congress appointed by the House and Senate leadership; four governors, three state legislators, four mayors, and three county officials appointed by the president from nominations by national associations of state and local officials; and three private citizens and three representatives of the federal executive branch appointed by the president. ACIR also had an executive director and a staff that ranged from about fifty in the late 1970s to less than a dozen by 1995.

ACIR performed a variety of activities in its thirty-seven-year history, including issuing major reports on fiscal, regulatory, and policy issues in nearly every information area, such as health care, the environment, transportation, and crime and justice. For example, in the 1980s it issued a series of comprehensive reports on increased federal mandates on state and local governments and federal preemption of state and local authority, and continually reported on trends and changes in the grant-in-aid system. All told, ACIR published more than 500 policy reports (with recommendations), information reports, and staff reports. ACIR also regularly conducted comprehensive work on fiscal federalism. For example, it annually published the “Significant Features of Fiscal Federalism,” a collection of data on changes in tax rates, trends in fiscal relationships and intergovernmental financial aid, costs of government services, and changes in economic and demographic trends that affected government financing, among other things. Further, it occasionally convened meetings and conferences to bring together policy makers to discuss shared challenges and contentious policy issues, such as unfunded mandates. Finally, it published a quarterly journal, Intergovernmental Perspective, which featured articles by top leaders and researchers on key trends and issues affecting the intergovernmental system.

In addition, ACIR played a major role in supporting the passage of significant pieces of legislative that affected all levels of government. For example, its support was critical to the passage of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Act of 1969, the Intergovernmental Personnel Act of 1970, as well as the creation of the now-defunct General Revenue Sharing program.

Support for ACIR waned by the late 1980s for several reasons. Some reasons are highlighted here. First, the large federal budget deficits spurred efforts to eliminate agencies that were deemed nonessential, and ACIR was a common target. In fact, as early as the mid-1980s there were congressional attempts to abolish it, and the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress hastened efforts to eliminate agencies and reduce the overall size of the federal government. Second, the decline in ACIR’s clout and prestige reflected a growing lack of consensus on intergovernmental issues generally. For example, several congressional subcommittees that dealt with broader intergovernmental relations were abolished, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) eliminated its own intergovernmental relations division in the late 1980s, and it became increasingly difficult for ACIR to fully engage key officials in federal cabinet-level agencies. Third, several national associations representing state and local governments demanded far-reaching reforms to ACIR in 1993, including a refocusing of the commission’s agenda, the appointment of more active Cabinet members, and more practical research; and their support declined when action was not taken to sufficiently address their demands. Fourth, ACIR issued reports on politically charged topics, which further reduced support in Congress and the executive branch. For example, a controversial report and accompanying set of recommendations on unfunded mandates, which the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 required ACIR to produce, further eroded ACIR’s support among Democrats (including the Clinton White House) as well as Republicans. By 1996, ACIR had few key advocates or powerful patrons left, and it was officially terminated in September 1996.

Many federal, state, and local officials, along with key observers and researchers of the intergovernmental system, lament the absence of ACIR as a resource for addressing broad intergovernmental issues beyond the boundaries of individual programs and providing comprehensive data in a neutral manner, particularly on fiscal issues. In fact, at a 2002 forum convened by the GAO, key intergovernmental leaders agreed on the need for a mechanism or forum to discuss shared challenges and possible solutions on topics such as health and long-term care needs, and provide research on issues affecting all levels of government, such as the increasing interconnectedness of tax systems. While reviving ACIR as it was originally structured may not be a viable option or even desirable to some, there was general consensus at this forum that the federal government should consider chartering some type of organization to carry out the coordination and research functions formerly performed by ACIR.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bruce McDowell, “Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations in 1996: The End of an Era,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism (Spring 1997): 111–17; and U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), Highlights of a GAO Symposium: Addressing Key Challenges in an Intergovernmental Setting, GAO-03-365SP, March (Washington, DC: U.S. GAO, 2003).

Thomas Yatsco

Last Updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Kestnbaum Commission on Intergovernmental Relations