The unfunded federal mandates bill, now moving through Congress, is a "miracle story," says a top official of the National Association of Counties.

"We took an issue nobody wanted to deal with, and we have had a lot of success with it," said Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties.

The association, along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, has been working on the unfunded mandates issue for about a year and a half now, Naake said.

"It's a hard issue to bring to the attention of the taxpayers," Naake said. The average citizen doesn't understand that when property or sales taxes go up, it's usually to offset a cost passed along by the federal government, he said.

More than the counties' interests are involved here, Naake said.

"Yes, we're tired of decisions being made at the federal and state level" that affect local budgets, he said. But, beyond that, "it's an issue of accountability and responsibility.

"If [Congress is] going to set national policy, then, by golly, they should pay for it," Naake said.

The bills in question

In the last decade, direct federal aid to local governments dropped drastically, to $19.8 billion in 1990 from $47 billion in 1980.

"During this same time, 27 new laws or major amendments to existing statutes were enacted which imposed significant additional regulatory burdens on state or local governments," said Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., a member of the House Government Operations Committee and chairman of its human resources and intergovernmental relations subcommittee.

Towns has introduced House legislation to accompany a Senate bill dealing with unfunded federal mandates.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, and Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, would, among other things, require that a separate vote be taken in Congress on whether to impose an unfunded mandate on states and localities.

The provision would create a political deterrent to imposing the mandates, said Larry Jones, associate legislative director and chief lobbyist on the mandates issue for the counties association.

Under the bill, lawmakers would be put on record as voting for, or against, passing the costs of federal legislation on to the states, Jones said. The municipalities would then have the ammunition to target lawmakers who consistently hamper local budgets by supporting bills containing unfunded mandates.

The legislation, as approved by the Senate Government Affairs Committee in June, contains three requirements for all federal legislation:

* The Congressional Budget Office must conduct a cost analysis of any bill and determine how much state governments and the private sector would have to pay to comply.

* If the cost of compliance is more than $50 million a year, the committee drafting the bill must authorize the funds needed to cover the projected costs of the measure.

* Sponsors of a bill also must identify where the money needed to comply is going to come from For example, they have to specify any combination of tax increases, spending cuts, or reductions in current spending authorization levels contained in other bills.

A majority vote is required to waive any of these requirements, and those are the votes that matter, Jones said. State and local officials will be able to monitor those in Congress who vote to impose unfunded federal mandates.

Under the Glenn-Kempthorne measure, once a bill is approved with the spending sources included, it is up to the appropriations committees to provide the actual funds.

In June, when the bill was approved at the Senate committee level, several committee members found fault because appropriations to fund the bill are not required, only requested.

"I'm afraid that by excluding the appropriations committees, it will reinforce the tendency of people to put [amendments] on the appropriations bills on the floor because it will not be subject to this requirement," said Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga.

Normally, the onus is on the committee drafting a bill to find spending sources, not the appropriations committees. So it would be unreasonable, if not impossible to pass the unfunded mandates bill if it contained that requirement, Jones said.

With the bill structured to appeal to the lawmakers' political sensibilities, "we should be able to see a change in [members'] behavior," Jones said.

The bill has bipartisan support and therefore a very good chance of passing this legislative session, which ends in early October, Jones said. Both President Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., expressed support for the bill in speeches to the National Governors' Association in July.

When the National Association of Counties first brought up the issue of unfunded mandates, the Democratic leadership in Congress paid little attention, Jones and Naake said. It was Kempthorne who got fellow Republican senators interested, Naake said. Once the public began to realize what Congress was up to, it became easier to convince lawmakers to introduce legislation, Naake said.

The House didn't act on unfunded federal mandates until after the Senate panel approved the measure. Companion legislation was introduced in the House in July.

Jones said he is hopeful that the full Senate will approve its mandate bill before the mid-August recess, and that the House Government Operations Committee will vote its measure through by recess time. If both chambers move swiftly, there will be enough time for final passage this session, Jones said.

There are other ways to use the mandates bill as well, he said.

House and Senate negotiators are currently working out the difference between their two versions of the National Competitiveness Act. During floor debate, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla. successfully attached to the bill a cost analysis amendment similar to the cost analysis requirement in the unfunded mandates legislation.

The National Association of Counties is hoping to capitalize on the cost analysis amendment and use the competitiveness act as a vehicle for their mandate bill.

"Why wait? I don't see the need of waiting another month or two months" if the legislation can move more quickly tied to the back of the competitiveness act that is so far along, Jones said.

One quirk in the rules is slowing the mandates bill on the House side of the Capitol, Jones said. The House normally prohibits members from using a point of order to stop legislation. But it is just that procedure that would trigger the vote on the mandates.

The House leadership is trying to find a solution without ending the ban on points of order in general floor debate, Jones said.

There is a lot of will to pass the legislation, he said. "If the pragmatists, not the political people, would sit down to work this out, they will be able to reach a solution," Jones said.

"I think some people want to use mandates as a political issue for the November elections, and don't really want to pass it now," Jones said. But this is a "well-balanced" bill, he said. "One that will give us the information we need to know who's voting to pass unfunded mandates on to state and local governments."

The bill "won't stop Congress from passing mandates," Jones said, but it will "make Congress accountable ."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.