Should We Revive the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations?

Hello readers - I am thrilled to be a contributor to this blog, and thrilled that the blog is in the hands of such capable editors. I want to pick up on something that Dan Rodriguez mentioned in his introductory post: that this blog is a great place to think about the spaces where localism meets federalism. Count me as a member of the "federalism is localism" movement that Dan mentioned.


To that end, I want to use this post to draw attention to a now-defunct governmental organization that once existed to study that very thing: the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR). From conversations with other law professors, I don’t get the sense that it is well-known in the legal academy, and I am here to rectify that. The ACIR was created in 1959 as an independent agency within the federal government to study and make recommendations on emerging intergovernmental issues. It had twenty-six commissioners, representing a bipartisan mix of federal, state, and local officials, plus some private citizens, as well as a staff of researchers and analysts. In the mid-90s, the ACIR lost the support of Congress and President Clinton, and was defunded.


But from 1959 until 1996, the ACIR produced hundreds of reports on various issues, many containing policy recommendations. The ACIR’s official website is gone, but the University of North Texas has cached it here and archived the ACIR reports here. The reports are a gold mine for anyone interested in federalism/localism: they provide snapshots through history of the policy issues and problems implicated by federalism, and they do so without ignoring local governments (one report describes local governments as “federalism’s workhorses”).


The reports are great resources for others as well. For those interested in criminal law, this report describes the intergovernmental dimensions of jails. This one investigates state-local relations in criminal law more generally. The ACIR published reports on the intergovernmental aspects of tax and tax administration, anti-poverty programs, infrastructure, public health, local discretion, court reform, and intergovernmental coordination broadly.


The ACIR ended in 1996, but our need for intergovernmental insights remains. If anything, it’s increased. Consider the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As I’ve written with Professor Yanbai Andrea Wang, the pandemic created a host of intergovernmental governance needs, including both vertical coordination between federal, state, and local officials, and horizontal networking from states to states and cities to cities, to coordinate effective responses. Though some coordination took place, we saw a lot of intergovernmental chaos: governments abdicated their responsibilities to one another and also undermined each other. And it’s not just pandemic policy. Since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, health care is more intergovernmental than ever before. Elections also implicate intergovernmental issues. So do public assistance and anti-poverty programs. So do roads, transportation, clean water, broadly-available internet access, and other forms of infrastructure.


There seems to me to be a need for institutionalized, clear-eyed, and nonpartisan research on intergovernmental issues. Should we recreate the ACIR? Probably not within the federal government. Our hyperpartisan climate would make the federal government a tough place for a good-government agency like the ACIR to thrive. Plus, the very existence of federal independent agencies may be short-lived. There have been some major efforts to produce intergovernmental research since the end of the ACIR, including by the Big 7 and the National Academy of Public Administration, but those efforts don’t seem to have taken hold. A number of states have their own intergovernmental offices that engage with state-local issues, but those aren't national organizations.


I'm not sure what the best way would be to institutionalize intergovernmental law and policy research. Perhaps an ambitious university could house an interdisciplinary center on its grounds. I do know, though, that governing our complex world requires this research. And I know that some fantastic scholars have done illuminating research on the topic - many of whom are contributors to this blog. Maybe we can sow the seeds for a revived ACIR, right here on these pages.


Post script: if you are interested in learning more about the ACIR and its history, I recommend checking out this symposium, published by the Public Administration Review in 2011.