The Last Two Years

Figure 1

A January 1992 study from the Cato Institute revealed the results of a survey that included 118 past and present governors. The survey found that, among other concerns, almost nine out of ten governors believe that the federal government should be required to reimburse state and local governments for the cost of mandated legislation. As the reader will see, their concerns are well founded.[3]

The last two years have seen an unprecedented explosion in the use of federal mandates.

The last two years have seen an unprecedented explosion in the use of federal mandates. The 102nd Congress convened on January 3, 1991. In the first 16 days of the session, lawmakers introduced 45 pieces of legislation containing federal mandates.[4] By the time the 102nd Congress adjourned at the end of its first year, it had introduced 120 bills that carried federal mandates, almost one mandate-laden bill for every one of the 126 days that the 102nd was in session. By December 1992, members of the 102nd Congress had proposed its 244th bill containing mandated directives.[5]

As illustrated in Figure 1 below, health, justice, and the environment dominated the list of proposed mandates. There were 83 pieces of mandated legislation in the health arena, while justice and the environment finished a not too distant second and third with 50 and 25 bills introduced, respectively. The combined legislation of these three categories alone amounted to 65% of mandates proposed by members of the 102nd Congress.

Several states, including Maryland Tennessee, and Michigan, have calculated the percentage of projected state revenue required to meet the cost of mandates imposed on the states by the federal government. In 1991, Maryland acknowledged that "at least 24.2 percent of all General Fund spending is dictated by federal legislative, regulatory, and judicial mandates." In the January 1992 issue of State Legislatures, Martha Fabricus revealed that Tennessee would have to set aside as much as 27 percent of forecasted revenue growth to meet the requirements of mandated legislation.

It appears that Congress has embraced mandates with a vengeance – and why not? This technique allows federal representatives to have their cake and eat it too – without cutting programs or raising taxes, while taking credit for the legislation they're not responsible for funding.

An aide to then Senator (now Treasury Secretary) Lloyd Bentsen dismissed critics' complaints regarding the use of mandates by saying: "Mandates wouldn't be necessary if [states] were doing what they should have been doing in the first place."[6] The truth is that Congress has no room to talk about legislative bodies not doing their job. In fact, if it was doing its own job, it would be more accountable for funding programs its members are only too willing to take credit for, instead of shifting the burden of such programs to state legislatures and the taxpayers they represent.

This issue goes beyond the fiscal impact of such legislation. The states were not meant to be handmaidens of the federal government. Mandates strike at the very heart of the state-federal relationship. The concept of federalism, a pillar of the U. S. Constitution, left to the states the lion's share of government powers and responsibilities. The gradual shift in recent years toward greater involvement by Washington in nearly all areas of public policy flouts the federalist spirit and threatens to make vassals of the 50 states. In one area after another, it has produced inferior policy results as well.

It would serve our policy makers well to be reminded of the Tenth Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."[7]