Reviving Local, State and Federal Collaboration

NACo's Larry Naake is pushing for a commission of representatives from all forms of government.
by | July 2010

Larry Naake is trying to bring back the good old days of local, state and federal collaboration.

Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties (NACo), is helping to lead a push for Congress to create a new commission of representatives from all levels of government. But the same things that killed the old commission that Naake is trying to replicate--partisanship and federal indifference--are the factors that make it a long shot to succeed this time around.

That old panel, known as the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR), formed in 1959, and it died when Congress defunded it in 1996. Through ACIR, congressmen and federal cabinet officials talked regularly with mayors, governors and legislators. "It provided a really wonderful forum for leaders to talk about problems that were mutual to all levels of government," Naake says, "and how you work together to solve those problems."

The commission's nonpartisan professional staff helped mold these conversations into reports that discussed concrete policy alternatives. The result was some low-profile but notable accomplishments. During the 1960s and 1970s, for example, ACIR helped shape the way federal money flowed to states and localities.

That isn't to say that everyone thinks the good old days were all that good. ACIR was predicated on the idea that Democrats and Republicans who represented different levels of government could come to a consensus if they spent enough time researching and discussing problems. "My view is that it wasn't a good structure," says Richard Nathan, a former ACIR commissioner and longtime federalism expert. "The ACIR was fundamentally flawed. It was flawed because it had 26 members from all these disparate groups that all have disparate agendas. It couldn't be an action group."

But the ACIR did try to take action on controversial topics. That's what helped kill it. The final straw was a report that documented the federal government's largest unfunded mandates, which included environmental regulations and disability protections. Activists protested and the Clinton administration pulled support for ACIR.

Since then, representatives of the major governmental associations increasingly have complained that Congress and the White House don't understand state and local governments and their needs. NACo, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities and the International City/County Management Association hope that a new commission would change that. These groups have supported a pair of congressmen who introduced legislation that would set up the National Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

But even Naake acknowledges that getting something approved will be difficult. After all, if Congress were strongly interested in intergovernmental affairs, there wouldn't be a problem that needs addressing. So far, the bill has stalled. It may be that an institution to bring people together regardless of political party is both desperately needed and unrealistic right now. "The 1950s bipartisan public administration kind of environment we had when the commission was created," says John Kincaid, a former ACIR executive director, "that's all gone."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |