Politics

Office of Intergovernmental Affairs: More Influential Than Ever

The White House office is more prominent and responsive than it ever was.
by | October 2011

In September 2008, the seven organizations representing state and local governments -- in a rare moment of unity -- sent a letter to then-candidates John McCain and Barack Obama urging the winner of the presidential election to strengthen the federal-state-local partnership after taking office. As part of the request, the letter asked each candidate to make the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs “an active part of his policy process.” A strong office, the organizations wrote, “would form the cornerstone of federal-state-local communications necessary to make our partnership effective.”

Two years later, that appears to be just what Obama has done. The Office of Intergovernmental Affairs (IGA) is more prominent and responsive than it ever was during the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency, say state and local leaders who interact with the office. “I think it’s been one of the bright spots for me in our relations with Washington,” says Mesa, Ariz., Mayor Scott Smith, a Republican and a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors leadership team. “It’s always good for us to know we have somebody in the White House we can call who we’re on a first-name basis with.”

“In the Bush White House, there just wasn’t a whole lot of engagement,” says Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, also a Republican. “They weren’t asking for much, and they weren’t offering much.” Now, Cornett and other state and local leaders say, they’re getting unprecedented access to the administration’s key decision-makers.

But the office isn’t without flaws. In a series of interviews with officials across the country who interact with the White House, along with other Washington observers, the IGA comes off as important and prominent -- even if not everyone seems sure of how effective it actually is. While the IGA is more transparent than the office was under Bush, it’s not necessarily less political, with many of its efforts focused on propping up the president’s image. (A recent entry on the office’s blog, for example, defended Obama’s controversial decision to withdraw new air quality standards with supportive quotes from a handful of local leaders. A “local update” the office recently e-mailed to mayors featured links to video clips of the president’s speeches from his August bus tour.) One major constituent described a key liaison in the office as ignorant of the issues facing state and local governments and uninterested in learning. Others expressed frustration that the Office of Urban Affairs, a separate but related entity, has essentially gone dormant after having been highly touted during the early days of the administration. (A new Urban Affairs director is said to be forthcoming.)

And while some officials interviewed say the office has an influential voice in formulating administration policy, others aren’t so sure. Michael Bird, senior federal affairs counsel for the National Conference of State Legislatures, says it’s difficult to gauge how much influence the IGA really has among administration policymakers. “We don’t sit in the room, so it’s very hard to know.”

Despite those questions, for officials at the state and local level, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the office. The IGA is vital to the federal-state-local relationship because it is the “gatekeeper” to the White House, according to one advocate who interacts with the office. “If somebody’s put in place to be that gatekeeper, you have to pay attention to them.”

The small size of the IGA -- its staff consists of fewer than a dozen people -- belies its enormous mission: serving as the administration’s liaison to every elected official in the country, outside of Congress. Every day, the office interacts with governors, mayors, city council members, county officials, tribal leaders and state legislators, not to mention the Washington organizations known as the “Big 7” that lobby on their behalf, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Governors Association and the National Association of Counties.

The office is headed up by Cecilia Muñoz, a former senior director of the National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic civil rights organization. Muñoz, who was appointed by Obama just three weeks after he was elected, says the president wanted the IGA not just to disseminate information out to states and localities, but also to solicit their feedback on policy matters. “We had pretty clear marching orders to make sure we operated as both a doorway out, for information that helps them get the information they need to do their jobs, but also -- very importantly -- as a doorway in,” Muñoz says.

Muñoz’s office is in the West Wing of the White House, a physical and symbolic relocation from her predecessors, who were housed in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door. What’s more, Muñoz reports to Valerie Jarrett, one of the president’s closest advisers. “The fact that this office falls under Valerie is just huge,” says Shaun McGrath, who worked as the office’s liaison to governors until he left to head the American Solar Energy Society in April. “She’s a longtime friend of the president, which elevated the access and importance of the office and the clout it has within the administration. Within the White House, it really is well respected.”

Local leaders hold David Agnew in especially high regard. Agnew, the IGA liaison to mayors, city council members and county officials, previously worked as an aide to Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joe Riley. That on-the-ground experience, local officials say, has made Agnew keenly aware of their needs. “He understands my job as well as I do,” says Oklahoma City’s Cornett. “I don’t have to explain why something’s important.”

Despite the perceived strengths of some of the office’s leaders, there’s still a sense among some observers that the IGA can’t overcome the bigger, more entrenched problems that plague the way Washington works. Bruce Katz, who leads the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, praises the IGA, saying it’s been transparent and has helped keep state and local leaders apprised of the issues. But in general, he says, there isn’t a serious working relationship between federal, state and local governments, and Washington leaders generally don’t appreciate how their actions affect other jurisdictions. “I think they’re performing well within the current system,” Katz says of the Intergovernmental Affairs Office. “The system is dysfunctional.”

On a warm Washington afternoon this past May, about 90 county officials visited the White House for a meeting with the president and vice president, along with several cabinet secretaries and various other federal officials. The meeting, which lasted about five hours, gave county leaders the chance to present their views on a variety of issues, including their concerns about how any potential cuts to Medicaid would affect them. The Intergovernmental Affairs Office was instrumental in coordinating the meeting, says Edwin Rosado, the legislative director for the National Association of Counties. “We had asked, ‘If you’re going to organize a meeting with all these people, we don’t want to hear talking heads and we don’t want to hear speeches.’” Rosado says. “And it wasn’t that. It was a good exchange. That was really kind of unprecedented for us.”

Such meetings are regular occurrences these days. In April, about a dozen state legislators met with the president for half an hour. “I’d have to say it was the best meeting we’ve ever had at the White House, the most substantive, best discussion we’ve ever had,” says Bill Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Among other topics, the group touted its support for the Main Street Fairness Act, which would make it easier for states and localities to collect sales taxes from online retailers. (Administration officials were noncommittal on the legislation.) “They certainly listen,” Pound says. “But they may not always agree.”

The IGA takes on an especially important role during disasters. During the run-up to Hurricane Irene, the office coordinated with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up daily conference calls with governors, mayors and county leaders on the East Coast. After the BP oil spill last year, the office led daily calls for more than 100 days with Gulf Coast governors, keeping them up to speed on the federal response and learning about the states’ needs. (The IGA’s all-hands-on-deck approach during disasters can have a negative side: State and local leaders say the office’s staff is so small that it’s difficult to coordinate with them on other issues during crises.)

This August, as Washington was locked in the battle over raising the debt ceiling, the IGA coordinated near-daily communication between the White House and mayors, who feared the effect a federal default might have had on their cities’ credit ratings. “It was obvious the White House wanted to engage us,” says Smith, the Mesa mayor. Mayors and the White House shared essentially the same viewpoint: The deficit shouldn’t be reduced exclusively by cuts to domestic discretionary spending, and revenue increases should be on the table.

Cecilia Muñoz also points to the debt ceiling talks as a critical point of collaboration with mayors. “As Washington was dealing with this incredibly complex issue, state and local governments had a very different perspective,” says Muñoz. “We have a capacity to lift up those perspectives.” (While mayors were relieved to avoid default, they generally weren’t pleased with the final deal, which relied so heavily on domestic spending cuts).

For all the natural disasters and major financial negotiations, the IGA also coordinates with local leaders on many issues that don’t get widespread attention. The office helped give legislators from Western states the opportunity to provide input to the Department of Interior regarding a plan to list a bird called the sage grouse as an endangered species. State lawmakers feared the land-use restrictions that would be triggered by the listing would severely hinder economic development in the region. They told Interior officials about their own preservation efforts and commitment to protecting the bird while asking officials to avoid the actual listing. Ultimately the birds weren’t listed, although the feds reserve the right to do so.

Still, there are times when the office and elected officials don’t see eye to eye, and those instances may become more frequent. In part because of the debt compromise, Congress will be focused in the near future on deep spending cuts that will no doubt hurt states and cities. Even Obama -- with his proposed $447 billion jobs package -- has called for cuts to many state and local grants like Community Development Block Grants, which many mayors consider sacrosanct. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” says one person who regularly interacts with the office. “Sometimes you wonder how strong everyone was in advocating for your point.”

Others say it’s not the office’s job to advocate for states and localities at all. “You’re there as an advocate for the president’s positions,” says Rudy Fernández, the IGA liaison to state legislators from 2005 to 2007.

Even some of the office’s constituents acknowledge that fact. “They’re not our advocates,” says Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties. “They’re a conduit for us to get our views to the [Office of Management and Budget] and the president. And they’ve done a good job doing that.”

Ultimately the question of whether IGA is an effective advocate (and whether it’s supposed to be) may not matter, says Ruben Barrales, who ran the office from 2001 to 2006 under Bush. “Obviously state and local government officials want federal money, as much as they can get, whenever they can get it,” Barrales says. “If you’re going to cut a budget, and folks want more money, there’s not a lot you can do about it. But sometimes, they just want to hear it from the horse’s mouth.”

Indeed, even with the office’s elevated role in the Obama administration, many officials still say that one of the IGA’s most important roles is simply to provide information. As one advocate who speaks regularly with the office puts it, “You might not like the answers you get, but it’s about getting answers these days.”

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