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Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations

Last Updated: 2021

The U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) was established by Congress on September 14, 1959 (P.L. 86-380) and defunded by Congress in 1996. Congress created the commission as an independent, bipartisan agency to monitor and study the federal government’s relationships with state and local governments and to foster stronger coordination and communication among federal, state, and local officials. The Commission’s charge included convening federal, state, and local representatives to consider common problems; serving as a forum for discussing the administration and coordination of federal grant programs, including conditions and controls; investigating the effects of fiscal, regulatory, and other policy changes on the federal system; providing technical assistance to the federal executive and legislative branches to determine the effects of proposed legislation on the federal system; identifying and studying emerging issues or problems confronting federal system partners; recommending the most desirable allocation of government functions, responsibilities, and revenues; and suggesting ways to simplify and coordinate tax laws and administrative practices to reduce intergovernmental competition and taxpayer compliance burdens.


ACIR was an outgrowth of the work of three temporary bodies. In 1949, the first Hoover Commission recommended creation of a continuing agency to study and guide federal-state relations and develop budget control systems for federal grants. In 1953, Congress created the Commission on Intergovernmental Relations at the request of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was concerned about the growth of federal grants-in-aid and regulations. In 1955, the “Kestnbaum Commission” issued a series of research reports ranging from agriculture to welfare, and recommended establishment of a “permanent center” in the executive branch to give continuing attention to problems in intergovernmental relations. Its successor, the Joint Federal-State Action Committee, worked from 1957 to 1959 to identify functions and revenue sources that could be turned back to the states, but was unsuccessful in gaining congressional support. The Committee endorsed its predecessor’s recommendation for the establishment of a focal point in the federal executive branch to deal with intergovernmental problems.

Following hearings on the need for a permanent institution to pay attention to federal-state-local relations, legislation was introduced in both Houses of Congress in May 1959 to create ACIR. Senator Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) and Representative L. H. Fountain (D-North Carolina) were champions of this effort. Both served as charter members.

A unique feature was the Commission’s 26-member composition. The president appointed twenty members; three represented the federal executive branch, and three the private sector. The remaining were state and local elected officials—four governors, three state legislators, four mayors, and three county officials—nominated by their respective national associations. The leadership of the House and Senate appointed three members each. Congress’s rationale was that recommendations made by a body with this diverse composition would be administratively and financially practical and politically feasible.


With a budget ranging from $1 million to $2 million annually and an executive director and staff ranging from fifty in the late 1970s to about 12 by 1995, the Commission was one of the smallest federal agencies in Washington, D.C. Over its lifespan, the Commission produced some 130 policy reports with recommendations. Major studies were released on fiscal balance in the federal system, urban and rural growth policy, substate and multistate regionalism, metropolitan governance, law enforcement and criminal justice administration, transportation, citizen participation, local government discretionary authority, the federal government’s role in the federal system, the design of federal categorical and block grants, regulatory federalism, preemption, health care, social welfare, highway-program turnbacks, state constitutions, and constitutional issues of federalism. Another 194 information reports containing no recommendations, 23 public opinion polls, and 22 staff reports were also released by ACIR.

Beginning in 1972, the Commission sponsored an annual public opinion poll of citizen attitudes toward taxing and spending. A popular annual volume was Significant Features of Fiscal Federalism, which presented data on changes in tax rates, trends in fiscal relationships and intergovernmental financial aid, costs of government services, and changes in economic and demographic trends that affected government financing, among other things. Also popular was the Commission’s quarterly magazine, Intergovernmental Perspective (1975-1995), which carried summaries of research work, articles by top leaders and researchers on intergovernmental issues, updates on federal-state-local developments, and news about ACIR members and professional staff. Occasionally, the Commission sponsored conferences to bring together policy makers to discuss shared challenges and contentious policy issues, such as unfunded mandates, and convened meetings with state ACIRs to collaborate on intergovernmental issues, developments, and trends.


ACIR’s reports were widely distributed to practitioners and scholars, and used in many college classrooms. The Commission’s recommendations were advanced through model legislation, testimony before Congress and state legislatures, and collaboration with the “Big Seven” public interest groups and state associations of local officials. For most of its 37 years, the Commission’s work was influential. ACIR played significant roles in the legislative processes resulting in, for example, metropolitan planning organizations (1962), the Economic Opportunity Act (1964 and 1965), Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act [Model Cities] (1966), Intergovernmental Cooperation Act (1968), OMB Circular A-95 (1969), Uniform Relocation and Real Property Acquisition Act (1970), Intergovernmental Personnel Act (1970), State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act of 1972 (General Revenue Sharing), OMB Circular A-102 (1988), Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (1995), property-tax circuit breakers, fiscal notes, and enterprise zones. Other pioneering ACIR research and recommendations included the Representative Tax System (comparative state fiscal capacities), payments in lieu of taxes, property tax relief, indexation of personal income taxes, interstate sales taxes, and mandates reform.


Support for ACIR began to wane by the late 1980s. Large federal budget deficits spurred efforts to eliminate agencies deemed nonessential. ACIR was a common target. As early as the mid-1980s, there were congressional attempts to abolish it, and the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress hastened efforts to eliminate agencies and reduce the federal government’s size. The Commission’s funding base had become diversified through state contributions, congressionally mandated studies, federal agency contracts, and publications sales, but congressional appropriations accounted for most of ACIR’s budget. Further, several congressional subcommittees that dealt with broader intergovernmental relations were abolished by the House and Senate; the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) eliminated its intergovernmental relations division in the early 1990s; ACIR no longer had champions in Congress comparable to Muskie and Fountain; and ACIR found it increasingly difficult to fully engage key officials in federal Cabinet agencies.

The decline in ACIR’s clout also reflected a growing lack of consensus on intergovernmental issues in an increasingly polarized political environment. Commission members themselves became less consensus-minded. ACIR’s case for continuation was weakened by an erosion of Big Seven support. Because of the presidential appointment process, the Commission leaned Republican under Presidents Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and George H. W. Bush (1989-1993). However, because Democrats held the majority of governorship during 1982-1996 and majority of state legislatures during 1978-1992, key members of the Big Seven—the National Governors Association and National Conference of State Legislatures, as well as the U.S. Conference of Mayors—leaned Democratic and charged that the Commission’s recommendations were partisan. Several of these associations demanded changes to ACIR in 1993, including a refocusing of the Commission’s agenda, the appointment of more active Cabinet members, and more practical research. Neither Congress nor the White House acted on the demands, but President Bill Clinton filled all ten vacant seats on ACIR In October 1993 and met with the Commission in December 1993, pledging full support for a robust ACIR.

ACIR’s death knell came when staff convened a large conference in Washington, DC, to air an unvetted draft report on unfunded mandates and recommendations for terminating or curtailing certain mandates. ACIR had been required to produce such a report by the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (1995). Although the Commission voted 13-7 to reject the report, the draft report had generated considerable controversy that alienated many Democrats, including the Clinton White House, giving the Republican Congress an opportunity to defund ACIR with no Democratic resistance.

On September 30, 1996, the Commission’s doors were closed, and a significant era of intergovernmental relations ended. No similar body has replaced it.

SEE ALSO: County GovernmentCriminal JusticeEisenhower, Dwight D.Fiscal FederalismGrants-in-AidIntergovernmental RelationsLocal GovernmentPublic AdministrationRevenue SharingTransportation PolicyUnfunded MandatesWelfare Policy


Bill Lucia, “A Bid to Restore and Update the Long-Dormant Intergovernmental Commission,” Route Fifty, July 26, 2019; David Brunori, “Advice to the New Congress: Bring back the ACIR,” State Tax Notes (January 15, 2001): 189–91; John Kincaid, “The U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations: Unique Artifact of a Bygone Era,” Public Administration Review 71:2 (March/April 2011): 181-189; Bruce D. McDowell, “Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations in 1996: The End of an Era,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 27:2 (Spring 1997): 111–28; Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, “ACIR and the Federal System 1959–1989,” Intergovernmental Perspective 15: 4 (Fall 1989); Stephen L. Schechter, ed. “Symposium on U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 14:3 (Summer 1984): 135-181; Deil S. Wright, “The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations: Unique Features and Policy Orientation,” Public Administration Review 25:2 (June 1965): 193–202; and U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), Highlights of a GAO Symposium: Addressing Key Challenges in an Intergovernmental Setting, GAO-03-365SP (Washington, DC: U.S. GAO, March 2003).