Unfunded Mandates: A Fight for State Autonomy


Throughout American history, the federal government has increasingly encroached upon the fiscal and constitutional prerogatives of state and local governments. Today, this power imbalance has reached a crisis point, and states are pushing back. They are demanding that federal mandates be funded and, in some cases, even challenging the authority of the federal government to impose these mandates. With the new, more state-friendly Congress, states and localities have a historic opportunity to restore balance in state-federal relations.

The Burden of Unfunded Mandates

States and localities have long accepted compliance with Washington’s conditions in exchange for federal funding. However, the federal share of that funding is decreasing while the mandates are growing in number, complexity, and cost. Unfunded federal mandates and highly prescriptive federal programs are forcing states and localities to sacrifice their own programs and priorities to comply with standards set by a distant federal government.

For instance, Aurora, Colorado, calculates that it will have to spend an average of $1,500 per curb to comply with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a cost they cannot afford. Columbus, Ohio, estimates that unfunded federal environmental mandates alone will cost their city $856 per household per year by the year 2000. These examples illustrate how micromanagement by federal agencies imposes burdensome costs and treats different states and localities as if they were the same.

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Fighting Back: State Strategies

States and localities have adopted various strategies to resist unfunded federal mandates:

  1. Publicizing the costs: States are making the costs of unfunded federal mandates known to the public and holding their Congressmen accountable for their mandate votes.
  2. Challenging Congress’s authority: Some states are questioning Congress’s authority to impose mandates and resisting the micromanagement by the federal bureaucracy.
  3. Legal action: States are suing the federal government for violation of the Tenth Amendment and challenging the constitutionality of federal mandates.
  4. Lobbying for mandate relief legislation: States are urging Congress to pass legislation that provides relief from unfunded federal mandates.
  5. Collective action: States are considering collective action to challenge the federal government’s most intrusive mandates and to amend the Constitution to reaffirm the principles of federalism.

With increasing frequency, these state actions are being accompanied by grassroots movements dedicated to restoring the constitutional limitations on the federal government. Organizations like the National Tenth Amendment Committee are working with legislators and activists in over 40 states to assert state sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment.

Unfunded Mandates: A Nonpartisan Issue

Opposition to unfunded federal mandates is a nonpartisan “good government” issue. State and local government officials from all political affiliations tend to agree that Washington politicians should not be allowed to take credit for promoting popular causes while states bear the financial burden. Local officials argue that if a mandate is important enough to require state or federal action, it should be important enough to have funding to support its implementation.

Controlling state legislatures and town councils is much easier than controlling the immense federal bureaucracy. Prohibiting unfunded federal mandates, along with restraining overall government spending and regulation, will make government more accountable and bring it closer to the people.

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Counting the Cost: Understanding Unfunded Federal Mandates

Calculating the costs of unfunded federal mandates is a complex task. To address the problem, some jurisdictions and research organizations have begun to study and publicize the costs of mandates. For example, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that the Clean Water Act alone cost cities with populations greater than 30,000 over $3.6 billion in 1993. Other studies estimate the costs of mandates in areas such as education, healthcare, and the environment.

To further address the issue, some states have established mandates auditor offices. These offices are responsible for creating an inventory of all unfunded federal mandates on all levels of government and calculating the cost of these mandates. In addition, they study the historical trends in unfunded federal mandates.

Publicizing the Problem

State and local officials have developed creative ways to publicize the problem of unfunded federal mandates and hold federal lawmakers accountable. Some examples include:

  1. Mandate-relief and Tenth Amendment resolutions: Many states have passed resolutions calling on Congress to pass specific mandate-relief legislation, fully fund mandates, stop imposing mandates, and provide cost estimates for any bills that would impose new mandates. Additionally, some states have passed resolutions asserting state sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment.
  2. Congressional delegation mandates consultation acts: Several states have passed acts inviting their congressional delegation to discuss the problem of unfunded federal mandates and justify their votes on mandate legislation.
  3. Congressional delegation voting reports: States are conducting regular voting reports to inform the public of how their congressional delegates are voting on unfunded federal mandates. This helps hold federal lawmakers accountable for their actions.
  4. Legal action: Some states are taking legal action to challenge unfunded federal mandates, using Tenth Amendment and other constitutional arguments. Additionally, some states are suing the federal government for reimbursement of the costs of mandated programs for illegal immigrants.
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Making the Federal Government Pay: Strategies and Legislation

The most prominent objective of the anti-mandates movement is to require the federal government to fund its mandates on states and localities. States have supported federal mandate-relief legislation and have considered intercepting federal taxes as reimbursement for federally induced costs.

Federal mandate-relief legislation, such as the Community Regulatory Relief Act and the Federal Mandate Relief Act, has been proposed, but these bills have not received a vote. However, there is hope that the new Congress will be more receptive to such legislation. Additionally, some states have considered intercepting federal taxes, such as individual and corporate income taxes or gasoline taxes, as a means of compensation for the costs of unfunded federal mandates.

To Comply or Not to Comply: Resisting Unfunded Federal Mandates

States and localities have adopted various approaches to resist compliance with onerous federal mandates. These include disputing federal agencies’ implementing regulations, asserting states’ right to challenge the constitutionality of a federal mandate and direct its implementation, noncompliance, opting out of federal programs, and returning primacy over federal programs to the federal government.

These actions demonstrate that states and localities have reached their limit and are willing to challenge federal mandates in various ways. By resisting compliance, they are asserting their autonomy and pushing back against federal overreach.

Amending the Constitution: Restoring State Autonomy

Some state officials believe that states will ultimately have to take constitutional action to establish reliable protection against federally induced costs. Proposals for a constitutional convention or a Conference of the States aim to address this issue. These initiatives would enable states to propose amendments that prohibit unfunded federal mandates or override objectionable federal legislation without relying on Congress or the judicial system.

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These proposals are gaining support among state leaders and would demonstrate the states’ commitment to restoring balance between state and federal power.


States and localities are leading the charge to rein in an overreaching federal government. They are demanding that federal mandates be funded and are exploring various strategies to resist these unfunded mandates. Through publicizing the costs, challenging Congress’s authority, suing the federal government, and lobbying for mandate relief legislation, states are working towards restoring balance in state-federal relations.

States recognize that controlling their own legislatures and town councils is easier than controlling the immense federal bureaucracy. By asserting their autonomy and pushing back against unfunded federal mandates, states are making government more accountable and bringing it closer to the people.

The fight against unfunded federal mandates is a nonpartisan issue that requires collective action from all states. Through legal action, public awareness, and constitutional amendments, states are working to rein in an out-of-control federal government and restore balance to America’s intergovernmental system.

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