Report of the Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (Kestnbaum Commission)

Image: Meyer Kestnbaum. 1960. Public Domain.
The commission concluded that “the preservation and strengthening of our federal system” depended on Americans’ willingness “to leave some room [among the states] for diversity of policy, to tolerate some lack of uniformity in standards, even in many matters which are of national concern and about which we may feel strongly.” To what extent are Americans still willing to allow diversity in policy among the states and tolerate lack of uniformity in standards? What are the arguments for allowing diversity and what are the arguments for curtailing it?
Compare the commission’s recommendations that “the national government should hold essential participation in existing or proposed programs to the minimum required for attaining its objective” and “should be concerned with their effects on state and local governments” with President Richard Nixon’s proposals in his Address to the Nation on Domestic Programs and President Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order 12612 . To what extent and in what ways do President Nixon’s and President Reagan’s recommendations reflect continuity with the commission’s recommendations?

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On the recommendation of President Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969), Congress on July 10, 1953, created the Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which from April 1954 through the presentation of its final report on June 28, 1955, was chaired by Meyer Kestnbaum (1896–1960) and is therefore often called the Kestnbaum Commission. The commission prepared a lengthy report analyzing the U.S. federal system and offering recommendations for its more effective functioning.

The Kestnbaum Commission was one of several commissions established in the mid-twentieth century in reaction to recent expansions of federal power and for the purpose of reassessing the balance of federal and state authority. The commission was concerned in particular with studying and improving interactions between federal and state governments, especially regarding federal grant-in-aid programs (President Calvin Coolidge, Memorial Day Address at Arlington National Cemetery, May 30, 1925).

In the report’s introductory section, excerpted here, the commission identified a number of virtues of the American federal system and argued that “the enduring values of our federal system fully warrant every effort to preserve and strengthen its essence.” The commission advanced a number of recommendations for strengthening the federal system, with a focus on urging the federal government to exercise restraint in undertaking responsibilities that could be better handled by states. Any rebalancing of federal and state authority and devolution of power to the states depended, of course, on the ability of the states to operate effectively. To this end the commission urged states to update their constitutions to remove constraints on policymaking, reapportion their legislatures more regularly and equitably, and strengthen the authority of their governors. Finally, the commission directed some recommendations toward the citizenry, because the distribution of federal and state authority was ultimately determined by whether the public demanded national policy solutions or was willing to tolerate and embrace diverse policy approaches and outcomes.

Source: The Commission on Intergovernmental Relations: A Report to the President for Transmittal to the Congress [Kestnbaum Commission], 1955,

The United States has made a major contribution to the art of government by its successful operation of a federal system. This success has been especially noteworthy in view of the enormous strains on the system caused by military and economic emergencies of the sort that have occurred during the past quarter century, and by the cumulative effect of the more gradual changes brought about by a dynamic and expanding economy.

In recent years, the almost continuous presence of a crisis, either economic or military, has accounted for vast expansions of national activities. Many of these programs have been of an emergency nature; a great many others, however, have lastingly influenced the division of governmental responsibilities between the national government and the states.

Profound as their impact has been, war and economic crisis have not been the only major causes of the growing pressure for national action. Equally insistent pressures have been brought about by intensified industrialization and population shifts from rural to urban areas; new advances in transportation and communications; and, flowing from these developments, greatly accelerated mobility of people and interchange of ideas.

These changes have been reflected in part in a growing governmental concern with the economic and social welfare of the individual. And many individuals who once looked no further than their city hall or state capitol now turn toward Washington when problems arise. We are doing today as a nation many things that we once did as individuals, as local communities, or as states.

The extensive readjustment of national and state responsibilities in recent decades was bound to stir questioning of the continued vitality of our federal system. Candor would probably compel many thoughtful Americans to admit having experienced some fear or occasional doubt on this score, at one stage or another of this momentous period.

To many, the expanding powers of the national government seemed destined to reduce the states to mere administrative provinces. This prospect was sharpened by Supreme Court decisions which appeared to have the effect of removing almost all significant constitutional limitations on the expansion of national activities. It was often aggravated by the conviction that many of the newer activities constituted invasions of individual freedom and ought not to be undertaken by any level of government. Thus the fear of usurpation of state rights was frequently combined with the fear of undue paternalism.

On the other hand, many who had welcomed the expansion of national authority began to wonder if our system of federalism had become an obstacle to effective government. Their fear was that our form of government would prove too slow-moving and cumbersome to deal with the intricate social and economic problems of an increasingly interdependent society and to cope with authoritarian regimes of the fascist, Nazi, and communist varieties. Our governmental system must be remodeled, many thought, if it is to be adjusted properly to twentieth-century conditions.

The Commission views both positions as extremes. The national government and the states should be regarded not as competitors for authority but as two levels of government cooperating with or complementing each other in meeting the growing demands on both. Chiefly because of war and the recurring threat of war, the expenditures of the national government have grown much larger than those of the states and localities. But state and local activities also continue to expand. Equally significant is the increased interest in and recognition of the importance of state and local governments as essential elements in an effective federal structure.

The continuing vitality of state and local government affords the most solid evidence that our federal system is still an asset and not a liability. To be sure, it is not a neat system, and not an easy one to operate. It makes large demands on our sense of responsibility, our patience, our self-restraint. It requires toleration of diversity with respect to taxes, roads, schools, law enforcement, and many other important matters. Those who have a passion for streamlining can easily point to awkward features.

Nevertheless, the federal principle, along with the principle of checks and balances, remains one of the great institutional embodiments of our traditional distrust of too much concentrated authority in government or, to state it positively, of our traditional belief in distribution of authority among relatively independent governing bodies. Experience has demonstrated the wisdom of the view of the Founding Fathers that individual freedom is best preserved in a system in which authority is divided and in which diverse opinions are reconciled through the processes of representative government.

Living in an age of peril, we could perhaps not afford the extra margin of individual freedom which our federal system makes possible if the price were the weakening of national security. We should not think of government only in terms of the scope it leaves for the individual; we must think equally of its capacity to govern. Individual freedom depends on preserving representative government. If division of authority between the national government and the states should impede our efforts to preserve our nation and the rest of the free world, it would jeopardize the freedom of the individual.

But experience amply justifies the view that our federal system, with the degree of flexibility that it permits, can be adapted to crises of the present and future as successfully as it has been to those of the past. As an instrument of positive government, it possesses—at least for a nation as large and diverse as ours—a clear advantage over a strongly centralized government. In helping to bolster the principle of consent; in facilitating wide participation in government; in furnishing training grounds for leaders; in maintaining the habit of local initiative; in providing laboratories for research and experimentation in the art of government; in fostering competition among lower levels of government; in serving as outlets for local grievances and for political aspirations—in all these and many other ways, the existence of many relatively independent and responsible governments strengthens rather than weakens our capacity for government. On the whole, therefore, the enduring values of our federal system fully warrant every effort to preserve and strengthen its essence.

Out of the trying events of this past quarter-century, and out of the accompanying doubts and fears, has come a deeper understanding of what is required to maintain a proper division of activities between the national government and the states. As with all governmental institutions in our society, the basic purpose of the division of powers is to provide a climate that favors growth of the individual’s material and spiritual potential. Power will not long rest with any government that cannot or will not make proper use of it for that end. Our system of federal government can be in proper balance, therefore, only when each level is effective and responsible.

Responsibility implies restraint as well as action. The states have responsibilities not only to do efficiently what lies within their competence, but also to refrain from action injurious to the nation; the national government has responsibilities not only to perform, within the limits of its constitutional authority, those public functions the states cannot perform, but also to refrain from doing those things the states and their subdivisions are willing and able to do.

People in the United States, as elsewhere, have looked more and more to government for assistance in solving their social and economic problems. The national government has sometimes responded more readily than have the state and local governments. The Commission does not deal with the issue of whether or not governments rather than individuals should satisfy these needs. What it faces is the fact that the national government has gradually undertaken some new activities which are susceptible of a larger measure of state and local handling. The Commission does not essay a judgment as to whether unreadiness on the part of the states and localities or overzealousness on the part of the national government, or both, may have caused the existing division of activities. It merely emphasizes the fact that the more effectively our state and local governmental structures, procedures, and policies can be adapted to present-day governmental objectives, the less occasion there will be for bypassing state action in the future.

Far from weakening the national government, the strengthening of state and local government would increase its effectiveness. The responsibilities that unavoidably must fall on the national government are formidable. The fullest possible utilization of the resources of the state and local governments is desirable both to supplement national action where national action is necessary, and to relieve the national government of having to divert its resources and energies to activities that could be handled as well or better by the states and their subdivisions.

The national government has therefore an interest, as well as a responsibility, in scrutinizing with the greatest care the degree of national participation in existing or proposed programs. It is not enough to ascertain that the contemplated activity is within the constitutional competence of the national government and that there is a national interest in having the activity performed. In the light of recent Supreme Court decisions,1 and in our present highly interdependent society, there are few activities of government indeed in which there is not some degree of national interest, and in which the national government is without constitutional authority to participate in some manner.

The degree and limits of national participation must therefore be determined by the exercise of balanced judgment. In addition to appraising carefully in each instance the need for national participation, the national government should hold essential participation to the minimum required for attaining its objective. In all of its actions the national government should be concerned with their effects on state and local governments.

The preservation and strengthening of our federal system depend in the last analysis on the self-restraint and responsibility, as well as the wisdom, of our actions as citizens. If we are not willing to leave some room for diversity of policy, to tolerate some lack of uniformity in standards, even in many matters which are of national concern and about which we may feel strongly, the essence of federalism, even if not the legal fiction, will have been lost. We must also realize that it can be lost, or its vitality sapped, by nonuse of state and local initiative as well as by overuse of national authority. We have therefore as citizens a responsibility to see to it that those legitimate needs of society that could be met by timely state and local action do not by default have to be met by the national government.

Precise divisions of governmental activities need always to be considered in the light of varied and shifting circumstances; they need also to be viewed in the light of principles rooted in our history. Assuming efficient and responsible government at all levels—national, state, and local—we should seek to divide our civic responsibilities so that we:

Leave to private initiative all the functions that citizens can perform privately; use the level of government closest to the community for all public functions it can handle; utilize cooperative intergovernmental arrangements where appropriate to attain economical performance and popular approval; reserve national action for residual participation where state and local governments are not fully adequate, and for the continuing responsibilities that only the national government can undertake....

  1. 1. Especially Wickard v. Filburn (1942).
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