The concept of federalism dates back to our Founding Fathers. The Framers sought to balance personal rights and property with the role of a strong court and an active party system to the creation of a national system, which prevented internal tyranny. Our Constitution composes of Madison’s institutional framework, Jackson’s patronage system and Jefferson’s ideology of autonomy and independence. The ambiguity of role of local governments in the Constitution gives us the today’s discussions of intergovernmental relations (IGR).
Although the term “local government” is not mentioned in the Constitution, it was the great French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the US in the early 1800’s and provides us with our cultural heritage to focus on the importance of local government and civil society in terms of our country’s development of democratic institutions and participation.
For the earlier years, the US lead a regime of Dual Federalism, which allowed the state and federal government to mutual run at their own competencies. Specific functions were assigned (for example interstate commerce and national defense) to the national authorities, while many others (such as the election of the presidential electorates) were left to the states.
It was not until the Civil War that conflict between the levels of government appeared in matters of policy on labor, social welfare and economic regulation. The notion of Compact Federalism established that various levels of government were able to work together. For example, one mechanism for cooperation was the land grant, which was Federal land that the national government owned but allowed states to use for specific purpose. This ultimately created the space for our State colleges, i.e. the Land Grand Universities. These types of policies ran from the Civil War until the New Deal.
At the beginning of the Progressive Era new analysis of the function of government was undertaken, such that better understood the role of society and the economy. The progressive’s agenda thought that government could not be solely managed with laissez-fair policies and instituted many governmental reforms. Among such develops included the professionalization of state bureaucracies, growing sets of interest groups and the expanded role of Washington’s domestic policies. Grants-in-aid programs were one such mechanism, which was crafted public programs to transfer funds from one level of government to another for a specified propose. Thus explaining programs during the New Deal created large amounts of financial support directly from the federal government to state and locals.
During the Eisenhower administration, Cooperative Federalism set precedence. The central government set up a pattern of engagement, so that certain activities would be taken care of by the federal government and others by the states. Such programs consisted of the Inter-State Highway Act and the National Defense of Education Act (NDEA). For example, NDEA sought to train college students with science and math in order to compete with the Russians. Therefore, the national government was in charge of state government by financing students through the student loan and grant programs.
At the same time, political scientists began to define and analyze the federal role for public policies. For example, Morton Grodzins used the term Marble Cake Federalism to criticize the idea that the federal, state, and local governments operated distinctly from one level to another. He distinguished this from Layer Cake Federalism, where the powers and policy assignments of the government hierarchy (or “layers” of government) are clearly spelled out and distinct from one another. Grodzins, a professor and dean of the University of Chicago, was concerned with white flight and racial policies in urban centers and saw that the IGR complexity was problematic for helping the poor.
Clearly by the time of Johnson’s administration, the inter-governmental system in the US was much more of a marble cake model. Overlapping and often duplicating grants and programs made the US federal system very complex. Therefore Johnson’s administration was crafted as Creative Federalism, which was mainly shaped by the Model Cities Act in 1965. This piece of legislation mandated that the federal administrative work with cities to provide necessary assistance to local governments. This program was heavily criticized as creating great strains to the federal system as it often bypassed the state governments. Much later on the local Model Cities program, because of new activism at the community level, was hard to cut by the federal government. Many social groups had interest in maintaining the program but even Johnson admitted that the program was complex to implement and needed to develop new relationships for its success.
Therefore when Nixon came to office, he reacted to these tensions and proposed various ways to pull power away from Washington and push it towards federal field offices and state and local governments. His efforts were branded as New Federalism—summarized as not giving additional federal dollars to state and local governments, but redefining beneficiaries’ benefits and programs. Nixon changed the inter-governmental system in three ways:
1) Revenue sharing, which added discretion to state and locals while pressing for more cost-sharing to hard-pressed jurisdictions and helped general purpose districts. The State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act of 1972 was so successful that it was extended in 1976 and in 1980 and would have continued except for soaring national deficits.
2) Block Grants were first established by Johnson, but were expanded and are typically associated more with Nixon. They are benefits programs that mandated state’s discretion on how to spend the money by local governments
3) Administrative reforms to minimize the government’s burden in implementing such programs.
Reagan’s presidency showed the most systematic and sustained changes within the IGR, highlighting the various levels of government and their competencies to manage resources. Specially, he added additional series of block grants, simplified the grants-in-aid programs, devolved responsibilities to lower levels of government and provide administrative reforms. Furthermore, Reagan’s most radical idea was to provide categorical programs into block grants, thus mandating states into specific policy applications at the State level.
It was not until Al Gore’s National Performance Review (NPR) during the Clinton administration, were inter-governmental relations seriously re-evaluated. The NPR set to revise the Federal government’s contracting processes and reverse unfunded mandates. During this period, the US Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR), which was first established in the 1950s to form analysis and improvements on the IGR process, examined the issue of unfunded mandates. Sadly, the ACIR’s staff provided recommendations in regards to the Clean Air Act, for which they had crossfire with management and shortly thereafter were defunded.
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