Unfunded Mandates:

Views Vary About Reform Act's Strengths, Weaknesses, and Options for Improvement

GAO-05-454: Published: Mar 31, 2005. Publicly Released: Apr 14, 2005.

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The Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 (UMRA) was enacted to address concerns about federal statutes and regulations that require nonfederal parties to expend resources to achieve legislative goals without being provided federal funding to cover the costs. UMRA generates information about the nature and size of potential federal mandates on nonfederal entities to assist Congress and agency decision makers in their consideration of proposed legislation and regulations. However, it does not preclude the implementation of such mandates. At various times in its 10-year history, Congress has considered legislation to amend various aspects of the act to address ongoing questions about its effectiveness. Most recently, GAO was asked to consult with a diverse group of parties familiar with the act and to report their views on (1) the significant strengths and weaknesses of UMRA as the framework for addressing mandate issues and (2) potential options for reinforcing the strengths or addressing the weaknesses. To address these objectives, we obtained information from 52 organizations and individuals reflecting a diverse range of viewpoints. GAO analyzed the information acquired and organized it into broad themes for analytical and reporting purposes.

The parties GAO contacted provided a significant number of comments about UMRA, specifically, and federal mandates, generally. Their views often varied across and within the five sectors we identified (academic/think tank, public interest advocacy, business, federal agencies, and state and local governments). Overall, the numerous strengths, weaknesses and options for improvement identified during the review fell into several broad themes, including UMRA-specific issues such as coverage and enforcement, among others, and more general issues about the design, funding, and evaluation of federal mandates. First, UMRA coverage was, by far, the most frequently cited issue by parties from the various sectors. Parties across most sectors that provided comments said UMRA's numerous definitions, exclusions, and exceptions leave out many federal actions that may significantly impact nonfederal entities and should be revisited. Among the most commonly suggested options were to expand UMRA's coverage to include a broader set of actions by limiting the various exclusions and exceptions and lowering the cost thresholds, which would make more federal actions mandates under UMRA. However, a few parties, primarily from the public interest advocacy sector, viewed UMRA's narrow coverage as a strength that should be maintained. Second, parties from various sectors also raised a number of issues about federal mandates in general. In particular, they had strong views about the need for better evaluation and research of federal mandates and more complete estimates of both the direct and indirect costs of mandates on nonfederal entities. The most frequently suggested option to address these issues was more post-implementation evaluation of existing mandates or "look backs." Such evaluations of the actual performance of mandates could enable policymakers to better understand mandates' benefits, impacts and costs among other issues. In turn, developing such evaluation information could lead to the adjustment of existing mandate programs in terms of design and/or funding, perhaps resulting in more effective or efficient programs. Going forward, the issue of unfunded mandates raises broader questions about assigning fiscal responsibilities within our federal system. Federal and state governments face serious fiscal challenges both in the short and longer term. As GAO reported in its February 2005 report entitled 21st Century Challenges: Reexamining the Base of the Federal Government (GAO-05-325SP), the long-term fiscal challenges facing the federal budget and numerous other geopolitical changes challenging the continued relevance of existing programs and priorities warrant a national debate to review what the government does, how it does business and how it finances its priorities. Such a reexamination includes considering how responsibilities for financing public services are allocated and shared across the many nonfederal entities in the U.S. system as well.

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