Opportunistic Federalism And Intergovernmental Relations Case Study



The U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) was a nonpartisan agency that provided research and recommendations on intergovernmental relations to the President, Congress, and state and local officials. It was established in 1959 and abolished in 1996 (Chi, 2004). Its mission was to strengthen the American federal system and improve the ability of federal, state, and local governments to work together cooperatively, efficiently, and effectively (UNT, 2022). By its very mission, the ACIR was set up for failure, however, in a system of federalism.

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the idea of re-establishing the ACIR. Proponents argue that the commission could help to address the growing problem of gridlock and polarization in American politics. They contend that the ACIR could serve as a forum for constructive dialogue between different levels of government, promoting cooperation and collaboration rather than conflict and dysfunction (Stenberg, 2011). Opponents of re-establishing the ACIR argue that it would be an unnecessary duplication of effort, as there are already numerous agencies and organizations that focus on intergovernmental relations. They also worry that the ACIR would simply become another vehicle for special interests to advance their agendas (Kincaid, 2011). The question of whether or not to re-establish the ACIR is complex, and there are compelling arguments on both sides. Ultimately, it is a decision for Congress to make, but this paper will argue that there are several reasons why the ACIR should not be re-established. First, the ACIR would duplicate the work of other existing organizations, such as the National Governors Association and the Council of State Governments. Second, the ACIR was likely just as swayed by special interests as any other Commission. Third, the ACIR was the federal governments attempt to influence intergovernmental issues more directly, potentially overstepping the checks and balances of federalism. Finally, there is no evidence that the ACIR had any positive impact on intergovernmental relations. In fact, some experts believe that the ACIR actually made relations worse by creating an atmosphere of distrust and rivalry among different levels of government. For these reasons, it is clear that the ACIR should not be re-established.


The United States Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (USACIR) was an independent, bipartisan agency established in 1959 to study and report on issues related to federalism and intergovernmental relations. The Commission completed its work in 1996 and was abolished by the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995. During its nearly four-decade lifespan, the Commission issued over 500 reports on a wide range of topics, including fiscal federalism, emergency management, civil rights, environmental protection, and Native American affairs (Kincaid & Stenberg, 2011). While the Commission did not have the authority to enact policy changes, its reports often served as a catalyst for intergovernmental reform. For example, the Commission's 1971 report on revenue sharing sparked a decade-long debate over the best way to distribute federal funds to state and local governments (Kincaid & Stenberg, 2011). The report ultimately led to the enactment of the Revenue Sharing Act of 1972, which provided billions of dollars in federal aid to state and local governments. In another instance, the Commission's 1982 report on urban policy helped to shape the way the federal government provides assistance to cities. The report's recommendations led to the creation of several new programs, including the Community Development Block Grant program and the Urban Development Action Grant program. While it is no longer in existence, the USACIR played an important role in solving intergovernmental issues during its 36 years of operation (Kincaid & Stenberg, 2011).


While the commission was tasked with studying the relationship between different levels of government and making recommendations for improvement, over time the commission became increasingly redundant, as other organizations took on similar roles. In addition, the Growth of Government Act of 1983 limited the commission's ability to engage in advocacy or research. As a result, USACIR was sunset in 1996. Ultimately, a Republican-led Congress joined forces with a Democratic President (Bill Clinton) who was not happy with the way the ACIR was handling unfunded mandates (McDowell, 1997).

Clinton and Congress were likely both upset as constituents in cities looking for relief saw the ACIR vote against its own recommendations to provide relief (Shafroth, 1996). Democrats and Republicans alike were unhappy with the committees performance, and nothing effective seemed possible from stalemates and watered down proposals. Allowing the ACIR to sunset in 1996 simply made sense from a practical standpoint for all parties concerned.


First, the ACIR would duplicate the work of other existing organizations, such as the National Governors Association and the Council of State Governments. The National Governors Association (NGA) is a nonpartisan organization that represents the...…been a growing trend towards centralized decision-making in the American federal system. This has led to increasing frustration among state and local leaders, who feel that they are being ignored or bypassed. In response, many States have begun to push back against this trend, reasserting their rights and authority. As a result, cooperation between different levels of government has become more difficult. The mission of the ACIRto strengthen the American federal system and improve the ability of federal, state, and local governments to work together cooperatively runs counter to this trend. Such a mssion was always likely to further increase tensions between different levels of government, making it even harder for them to work together effectively.

With that in mind, there is no reason to suppose that any agency or independent commission is needed for advancing intergovernmental relations. Relations will exist as naturally and as organically as needed. If governments at the local, state, and federal levels need to interact and relate, they will do sobut it is also important that there be healthy competition among them all. The problem with the federal government is that it often looks after its own interests as though it existed to serve itself only. It has become a behemoth of a bureaucracy, and its intentions in any intergovernmental relations are simply to advance its own thinking and self-interest, whether it results in a win-win situation for all across the board or not.


The U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) was established in 1959 to "study and appraise the relationships among the various levels of government in the United States and make recommendations." In fact, some experts believe that the ACIR actually made relations worse by creating an atmosphere of distrust and rivalry among different levels of government. As such, there is no compelling reason to re-establish the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. Considering the immense bureaucracy that the federal government has become and the extent to which everything has become partisan and politicized it is difficult to even see how any commission or agency could be neutral and bipartisan at this time. It is also difficult to see how any commission or agency could be free from the sway of special interests, which always find ways through lobbying to have their voices heard over the voices of average American citizens. The federal government should probably have less influence in intergovernmental relations at any rate…

Sources Used in Documents:


Chi, K. S. (2004). The Contributions of the US Advisory Commission onIntergovernmental Relations: A Retrospective Assessment. State & Local Government Review, 36(3), 231-233.

Conlan, T. (2006). From cooperative to opportunistic federalism: Reflections on thehalf?century anniversary of the commission on intergovernmental relations. Public Administration Review, 66(5), 663-676.

Kincaid, J. (2011). The US Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations:Unique artifact of a bygone era. Public Administration Review, 71(2), 181-189.

Kincaid, J., & Stenberg, C. W. (2011). “Big questions” about intergovernmental relationsand management: Who will address them?. Public Administration Review, 71(2), 196-202.

McDowell, B. D. (1997). Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations in 1996:The End of an Era. Publius, 27(2), 111–127.

Shafroth, F. (1996). ACIR votes against its own report. Retrieved from https://www.thefreelibrary.com/ACIR+votes+against+its+own+report+on+curtailing+current+unfunded...-a018544435

Stenberg, C. W. (2011). An ACIR perspective on intergovernmental institutionaldevelopment. Public Administration Review, 71(2), 169-176.

UNT. (2022). ACIR. Retrieved from https://digital.library.unt.edu/explore/collections/ACIR/

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