Why Congress Targeted Mandates

Unfunded US laws were driving up costs, as Anchorage, Alaska, found at its local water plant

THIS is the kind of sweeping federal edict that drives governors, mayors, and county supervisors to distraction.

The water in Anchorage, Alaska's sewage system was so clear that in some months the water going into the treatment plant met federal standards for what should come out.

So to meet a 1991 federal requirement that sewage treatment remove 30 percent more biological wastes, it could have cost Anchorage as much as $160 million.

Instead, the city now lets local fish processors dump 8,000 pounds of fish guts a year into the water so that the normal sewage treatment can clean it back out.

Unfunded mandates still do not grip the imagination like, say, white Ford Broncos. But pruning them has become a rallying cry in the revolt against federal power in state capitals and city halls.

Now a curb on such spending requirements - and a rule that Congress pay for programs it imposes on state and local governments - is also the second legislative act for the Republicans' ``Contract With America'' to pass both the House and the Senate.

It may have passed when it is no longer necessary, since the Congress that produced the bill seems far less inclined to impose new mandates than the last one.

But backers of the measure, which passed the House Wednesday 360 to 74 after much heated debate, are applauding it nevertheless as a move in the right direction.

Fixing responsibility

``It's a somewhat limited measure, but for Congress it's a huge step,'' says Christopher Zimmerman, chief economist at the National Council of State Legislatures. By putting in place a procedure forcing Congress to consider intergovernmental costs, he says, ``it will help fix responsibility for the actions of governments.''

Some members opposed the bill on the grounds that it did not exempt certain regulations viewed as vital for the national well-being, such as those governing airport security and children's health. But in the end, the House passed the bill easily, as did the Senate Jan. 27 with a similar version. President Clinton says he'll sign the final bill.

For some of the bill's advocates, this legislation - which covers only future laws - is just the first battle in the war. So far, all the expensive rules and regulations that Congresses-past have levied on state and local governments will remain untouched.

Jeff Joseph, vice-president of domestic policy at the US Chamber of Commerce, says the next phase is to ``look at the old stuff and see how those should be dealt with in the 21st century.''

But the current bill could affect some other items on the federal agenda. If President Clinton submits a bill to increase the minimum wage, for example, that could be construed as an unfunded mandate on state and local employers who must raise wages. If Congress wants to drop unwed mothers under age 21 from the welfare rolls, even the paperwork and policing of that change will cost states.

In the age of crushing federal deficits, unfunded mandates have become a primary way for the federal government to extend its reach.

Congress decides how clean drinking water should be in Dubuque, Iowa, and Denver, and what pollutants to test for, and leave the cleaning to state and local governments. Or Congress sets standards for how accessible polling places should be to the disabled, and local officials pay the tab.

Rebellious mayors

As federal spending has grown tighter, mayors and governors have grown increasingly rebellious over the issue in the past couple of years.

But the ban on unfunded mandates faces some practical questions as well. The Congressional Budget Office must estimate how much money a federal requirement will cost. With a relatively small staff, they must ask cities, counties, and states themselves. But what would Anchorage say about the clean sewage rule? The $160 million for an unexpanded treatment plant or the negligible cost of the fish guts option?

``There is the potential for states and localities to exaggerate costs,'' says Jim St. George, assistant director of the State Fiscal Project at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

Technically, the bill does not completely ban unfunded mandates; a majority in Congress may vote to allow such a mandate. As a rule, though, Congress will be barred from considering any unfunded mandate that costs states or localities more than $50 million. Exempted are laws that govern constitutional or civil rights, antidiscrimination, emergency relief, Social Security, or national security.

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