Skip to main content

Kestnbaum Commission on Intergovernmental Relations

Last Updated: 2006

Created on July 10, 1953, by Congress at the urging of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (better known as the Kestnbaum Commission named after Meyer Kestnbaum, Special Assistant to the president) was directed to examine the role of the national government in relation to the states and their political subdivisions. The creation of this committee, along with the first (1947–49) and second (1953–55) Hoover Commissions and later the Joint Federal-State Action Committee (1957–59), represented efforts to unwind, reform, and reorganize the federal system. On June 28, 1955, the Commission presented its report to the Congress and the president.

The crux of its report stressed that the health of the American federal system depends on the recognition of two important things. First, the states must always be attentive to the service needs of their citizens (something they had not done in the past); if not, the national government will continue to find it necessary to respond. Second, the national government must restrain itself from “taking over activities that the states and their subdivisions were performing with reasonable competence”; otherwise, the “vitality” of these governments “would be undermined.” In short, the Commission, relying on the Constitution and its interpretation of the intent of the framers, concluded that a balanced and cooperative approach to governance in the United States was expected, rather than an outcome where one level of government dictates or controls the other one.

Nevertheless, the Commission’s assessment of the current state of affairs of American federalism in 1955 was that “where the problem of our federal system once appeared to be one of creating sufficient strength and authority in the National Government, today contrary concerns have aroused anxiety.” Specifically, the Commission was of the opinion that the national government had far more authority than it needed to satisfy the expectations of both the public and the framers, and indeed, should limit further expansion of its authority. Yet, the Commission was quick to point out that “a realistic program of decentralization depended as much on the readiness and ability of the States and their subdivisions to assume their full share of the total task of government.”

In spite of the overcentralization that was apparent in the American federal system as of 1955, the Commission, nonetheless, reminds us of the national government’s twofold set of responsibilities: to (1) protect and promote the national interest by adopting such substantive policies as are necessary and proper and also consistent with its delegated powers, and (2) protect and promote the national interest in the preservation of the federal system. Simply stated, the national government was expected to take vigorous and effective action only where national action was warranted (five instances were listed) and, along with this, a discriminating sense of when not to act. As a limitation on the exercise of national power, the Commission emphasized that action should be proportionate to need. That is, the national government should assume control over an activity only when lesser measures will not suffice. If a particular need cannot be met by some form of national support for state action, then national action should cease at that point. Support could take many forms, including encouragement of interstate action, enactment of national laws to facilitate state action, help by means of information or training, and financial aid through cash grants, loans, and other means.

Aside from the need for the national government to support states and their local government, the Commission also saw many benefits for joint national-state action in the area of service provision. First, the success of even voluntary programs may require supplemental aid from compulsory law. Second, variation and accommodation in the design and implementation of service programs may be more important than national uniformity and may contribute to the national government’s goal of efficiency. Third, it is easy for a state, if it desires, to amplify or extend a service beyond the point at which the national interest in a joint program stops. Fourth, joint action is more likely to conserve and promote the vitality of state governments than would extensive national performance of a program or part of a program.

While stressing that the national government should resist the temptation to aggrandize more power unto itself, the Commission in its report also discussed a number of things that the states should be doing to “get their own house in order” so as to satisfy the expectation that they be “ready” and “able” to the first-line responders to their constituent needs. As an initial step, the Commission recommended that the states rewrite and update their constitutions so as to achieve the flexibility required to meet the needs of an ever-changing, modern society. Reapportionment of state legislatures was another high-priority issue that warranted state attention. The underrepresentation of large numbers of urban residents meant that—contrary to the design of federalism—they were increasingly seeking assistance from the national government rather than their state. Another recommendation was for states to expand the powers of governors and address the issue of a fragmented state executive branch with its many separately elected officials and independent boards and commissions. The need to strengthen local government, which including broadening home rule and county modernization, was another area of concern identified by the Commission. Finally, the Commission suggested greater interstate cooperation.

It should be noted that well over one half of the Commission’s report dealt with the employment of federal grants-in-aid as a vehicle to foster more intergovernmental cooperation. Indeed, the final 130 pages of a 279-page report (exclusive of appendices and the index) focused on twelve policy areas (agriculture, civil aviation, civil defense and urban vulnerability, education, employment security, highways, housing and urban renewal, national disaster relief, natural resources and conservation, public health, vocational rehabilitation, and welfare) in which there was a history of a substantial degree of intergovernmental relationships and sizable financial assistance from the national government to the states and their local governments. Specifically, this part of the report (1) described the intergovernmental relationship in each field, (2) recommended divisions of responsibility among the different levels of government, and (3) analyzed grants-in-aid and made recommendations for future assistance. In so doing, the Commission did not address whether particular functions should be performed at all by government, but rather concentrated its attention on problems of national-state-local relations prevailing in each field, with the focal question being which level of government should have primary responsibility for performance of each function.

As a result of the visibility and political attention given to the Commission’s report as well as the Commission’s own recommendation that a permanent center be created to direct “concerted attention to interlevel relationships,” Congress in 1959 established the former Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

SEE ALSO: Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental RelationsDecentralizationEducationEisenhower, Dwight D.Governors and FederalismHousingIntergovernmental RelationsLocal GovernmentReapportionmentState LegislaturesWelfare Policy


Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, A Report to the President for Transmittal to the Congress (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1955); Parris N. Glendening and Mavis Mann Reeves, Pragmatic Federalism: An Intergovernmental View of American Government, 2nd ed. (Pacific Palisades, CA: Palisades Publishers, 1984); and Laurence J. O’Toole, ed., American Intergovernmental Relations, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2000).