High on the agenda of the Congress this year is action to finally prohibit or restrain the imposition of unfunded mandates upon the states. These mandates-hundreds of them passed by Congress over the years-require the creation of new programs or the extension of existing ones, and are "unfunded" because the federal government forces the states to pay for them.

Unfunded mandates encourage careless policy at the federal level: if Washington can come up with an idea and not have to pay for it, where's the incentive to weigh the idea's true costs and benefits? The Mackinac Center for Public Policy calculated that in 1993, unfunded federal mandates in the Medicaid program alone cost Michigan taxpayers almost $100 million.

Sometimes, a law imposes mandates in very clear language. But quite often, the wording is deliberately vague. Mandates appear later when the bureaucracy or the executive branch interprets the law and attempts to enforce it. Washington is notorious for this language of its own, which some observers have labeled "Governmentese." For example, below are actual phrases from President Clinton's Clean Water Initiative with their likely real meanings in language we all understand. The Initiative will be considered this year when Congress debates reauthorization of the Clean Water Act.

 
Governmentese What It Really Means
"powerful and wide enough to realize other vital national priorities" a law with a hidden agenda unrelated to its announced purpose
"criteria should be automatically converted into state standards if the state fails to act" guidelines are mandatory, and apply without regard for local conditions
"encourage (regulated parties) to move beyond compliance" penalize anyone who only just complies with the law
"allow states to use revolving funds for disadvantaged community needs" hide social welfare spending in other parts of the budget
"help states collect sufficient funds (to) . . . fund authorized programs" order states to raise taxes to pay for the programs
"EPA should be authorized to collect the fee if the state does not collect sufficient funds" state control is illusory, and is forfeited if local taxes aren't raised enough
"strengthen citizen enforcement" give pressure groups broad powers to sue
"holistic approach" expand the federal sphere of control over anything faintly related to the problem
"a new era in environmental protection" massively expand the federal sphere of control
"best available management measures" without regard for cost-effectiveness
"guidelines . . . should be regularly updated to focus on reducing the greatest . . . risks" rules will change unpredictably in response to interest groups and junk science, keeping you guessing
"based on current science" quick, before scientists expose faults in the program
"improve quality of life for all" subsidize favored groups
"incentives" penalties for everyone else

As the Congress deliberates the unfunded mandate issue, it may be tempted to water down real mandate relief with a little "governmentese" that keeps the door open for this costly abuse of power. If it needs some clear direction, the message from the states couldn't be plainer: Stop the Mandates!