Intergovernmental Mandates in Federal Legislation

July 15, 2009

YesterdayCBO released a brief that analyzes intergovernmental issues in the context of The Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 (UMRA). UMRA focuses attention on federal requirements imposed on state, local, and tribal governments and the private sector that are not conditions for receiving federal aid. The law specifies which types of requirements should or should not be considered mandates, establishes procedures that govern Congressional consideration of such mandates, and directs CBO to estimate the costs of mandates. UMRAs goal is to promote informed decisionmaking by the Congress as it considers questions about the appropriateness of federal mandates and about the desirability of providing financial assistance to cover the costs of thosemandates. Because UMRA applies additional procedural hurdles for legislation that imposes requirements on public entities, this brief focuses specifically on intergovernmental mandates.

There are often questions about which bills are covered by UMRA and about how the law defines an intergovernmental mandate. UMRAs application is limited in three ways:

  • It does not apply to the broad policy areas of national security or constitutional rights (including voting rights) or to some segments of the Social Security program.
  • In most cases, it does not consider new conditions related to federal grant programs to be mandates.
  • It focuses on mandates with costs above a thresholdoriginally set at $50 million, and adjusted annually for inflation so it is now $69 million.

Most legislation that the Congress has considered since 1996 has contained no intergovernmental mandates as UMRA defines them. Only 13 percent of the more than 7,600 bills and other legislative proposals CBO reviewed between 1996 and 2008 (most as they were reported out of committee) contained such mandates. Less than 9 percent of those mandates would have imposed costs above UMRAs threshold. Only eleven bills with estimated costs over the threshold have become law since 1996. Those include increases to the minimum wage, preemptions of state taxing authority, requirements on commuter railroads and transit authorities, reductions in funding for some entitlement programs, and new standards for issuing drivers licenses.

This brief was written by Leo Lex in the Budget Analysis Division. In his spare time Leo enjoys photography, gardening, and recently, glassblowing (but not in the heat of summer).