President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs (IGA) in 1955 upon recommendation from the Kestnbaum Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. Empowered to liaison with state and local governments, IGA has operated ever since with varying proximity to the president.
CONSTITUENTS AND ORGANIZATION
IGA has three principal constituents: the president, state and local elected officials, and the representatives of national state and local government organizations. At the end of each week, however, IGA submits a report to the president, its only boss. Outside the White House, IGA deals with nearly 90,000 state and local government units in the federal system (including Native American tribal governments), which are represented by several times more elected officials. Beyond their individual importance, state and local elected officials wield collective political strength in Washington with representation from national organizations. IGA works with all such organizations, especially those in the “Big Seven,” which is composed of the National Governors’ Association, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities, the Council of State Governments, and the International City/County Management Association.
The IGA director establishes the organizational structure of the office, usually assigning staff to client groups, such as governors, mayors, lieutenant governors, state legislators, state treasurers, and so forth. Staff members are also organized secondarily according to a set of policy issues, typically in areas where they have expertise. In addition, staff members are assigned liaison responsibilities to the other offices within the White House.
The primary functions of IGA have evolved somewhat over time. Created in a political climate of expanding federal involvement and assistance to states and localities, IGA worked to facilitate state and local governments meet their citizens’ needs. Over the last twenty years the office has settled on a consistent undertaking: to set up an effective channel of communication between the president and the myriad state, local, and tribal elected officials throughout the country. An astute staff, politically and policy wise, is required to perform this core liaison function, which includes a response and outreach component.
The response component of IGA’s mission is to respond to the concerns of state and local elected officials on matters that range from the trivial to the critical. This responsibility is typically performed with the same effort for representatives of each political party. Embedded in this duty, however, is the unremitting task of gatekeeping. IGA, a relatively small office of around ten staffers, is continuously inundated with requests by elected officials for the president’s action or inaction. IGA organizes these requests, handling as many as possible internally and ensuring that others are handled by the appropriate department or White House office, or the president when necessary. In many cases, state and local elected officials want IGA to field requests to clarify federal regulations, explain federal program requirements, or otherwise help them wade through the complex system of federal programs. In many other cases, elected officials just want their viewpoints considered and relayed unfiltered to the president or the proper administration official. IGA performs these duties like a neutral broker, assisting representatives regardless of political affiliation and bringing supportive and dissenting viewpoints into administrative policy debates. In turn, the countless representatives of these governmental units have come to rely on IGA to impartially respond to a concern or dispassionately communicate a policy viewpoint. During President George W. Bush’s transition, for example, a story broke that suggested IGA would be disbanded and its responsibilities incorporated into the domestic policy apparatus. There were so many complaints from state and local elected officials that the administration ditched the proposal and appointed a director for IGA less than two months after the story broke. Creating a genuine dialogue by opening the policy doors to these officials allows IGA to cultivate connections that survive across administrations and facilitate the office’s second core function, outreach.
The outreach component of IGA’s mission is to promote the president’s policies and initiatives. In this capacity, staffers educate constituents on important policy issues in effort to generate greater support. Senior IGA staffers frequently hold briefings, attend conferences, and deliver speeches in accordance with this outreach objective. During stages of policy formulation, IGA often consults with state and local elected officials, who wield their own influence when these issues culminate in Congress. Neglecting the vetting aspect of outreach can be costly. In 1998, for example, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order on federalism in which IGA and other policy units neglected to consult with state and local officials or their representatives in the national organizations. The organizations vehemently protested the order. Three months later, the order was suspended. During the subsequent revision process, IGA constantly consulted representatives of the Big Seven, and in 1999 Clinton issued the revised order with the Big Seven’s support.
The office also carries out other routine, albeit important, cooperative nonpartisan tasks. IGA coordinates with the Scheduling Office to ensure that state and local elected officials are invited to presidential events occurring in their jurisdiction as well as coordinating visits from state and local elected officials to the White House. IGA provides prompt notification to state and local elected officials of significant policy decisions, whatever the outcome. These include decisions like the declaration of a disaster area, an announcement of a judicial appointment, or the approval of a federal grant.
To meet all of its responsibilities, IGA works closely with other offices in the White House, including the Chief of Staff ’s Office, the Office of Cabinet Affairs, the Domestic Policy Council, the Office of Legislative Affairs, and the Office of Communications. IGA staff often confer with officials from these offices to utilize policy expertise, keep informed of legislative developments, or manage responses. Furthermore, IGA collaborates with its twenty-seven IGA counterparts in the departments and agencies of the executive branch. Holding bimonthly meetings at the White House with the departmental units, IGA is able to leverage resources, share information, and produce faster policy responses.
SEE ALSO: Council of State Governments; County Government; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Executive Orders; Grants-in-Aid; Intergovernmental Relations; International City/County Management Association; Kestnbaum Commission on Intergovernmental Relations; Local Government; National Association of Counties; National Conference of State; National League of Cities; Native Americans; Political Parties; Presidency; State Legislatures
Bradley H. Patterson Jr., The White House Staff: Inside the West Wing and Beyond (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2000); Comment, “A White House View: An Interview with Jack Watson, Secretary to the Cabinet and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs,” EPA Journal 5 (May 1979), 12-15; Ryan Holeywell, “Office of Intergovernmental Affairs: More Influential Than Ever.” Governing (October 2011) at https://www.governing.com/topics/politics/white-house-office-intergovernmental-affairs-more-influential.html