Intergovernmental Relationships


Unfunded mandates are federal laws and regulations that impose obligations on state and local governments without fully compensating them for the administrative costs they incur. The federal government has used mandates increasingly since the 1960s to promote national objectives in policy areas such as the environment, civil rights, education, and homeland security. One type of mandate threatens civil and criminal penalties for state and local authorities that fail to comply with them across the board in all programs, while another provides for the suspension of federal grant money if the mandate is not followed. These types of mandates are commonly referred to as crosscutting mandates. Failure to fully comply with crosscutting mandates can result in punishments that normally include reduction of or suspension of federal grants, prosecution of officials, fines, or some combination of these penalties. If only one requirement is not met, state or local governments may not get any money at all.

For example, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 authorizes the federal government to withhold federal grants as well as file lawsuits against state and local officials for practicing racial discrimination. Finally, some mandates come in the form of partial preemption regulations, whereby the federal government sets national regulatory standards but delegates the enforcement to state and local governments. For example, the Clean Air Act sets air quality regulations but instructs states to design implementation plans to achieve such standards (Figure).Martha Derthick. 1987. “American Federalism: Madison’s Middle Ground in the 1980s,” Public Administration Review 47, No. 1: 66–74.

An illustration shows the Uncle Sam character reading a document titled “Clean Air Act”. In the background is a landscape of mountains and a river. Next to the EPA logo is the label “The Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act”.
The Clean Air Act is an example of an unfunded mandate. The Environmental Protection Agency sets federal standards regarding air and water quality, but it is up to each state to implement plans to achieve these standards.

The widespread use of federal mandates in the 1970s and 1980s provoked a backlash among state and local authorities, which culminated in the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA) in 1995. The UMRA’s main objective has been to restrain the national government’s use of mandates by subjecting rules that impose unfunded requirements on state and local governments to greater procedural scrutiny. However, since the act’s implementation, states and local authorities have obtained limited relief. A new piece of legislation aims to take this approach further. The 2015 Unfunded Mandates and Information Transparency Act, HR 50, passed the House early in 2015 before being referred to the Senate, where it waits committee consideration.U.S. Congress. Senate. 2015–2016. H. R. 50 – Unfunded Mandates Information and Transparency Act of 2015 H. Rept. 114-11.

The number of mandates has continued to rise, and some have been especially costly to states and local authorities. Consider the Real ID Act of 2005, a federal law designed to beef up homeland security. The law requires driver’s licenses and state-issued identification cards (DL/IDs) to contain standardized anti-fraud security features, specific data, and machine-readable technology. It also requires states to verify the identity of everyone being reissued DL/IDs. The Department of Homeland Security announced a phased enforcement of the law in 2013, which requires individuals to present compliant DL/IDs to board commercial airlines starting in 2016. The cost to states of re-issuing DL/IDs, implementing new identity verification procedures, and redesigning DL/IDs is estimated to be $11 billion, and the federal government stands to reimburse only a small fraction.National Governors Association, National Conference of State Legislatures, and American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. 2006. The Real ID Act: National Impact Analysis. Compliance with the federal law has been onerous for many states; only twenty-two were in full compliance with Real ID in 2015.Homeland Security. “REAL ID Enforcement in Brief.” (June 12, 2015); National Conference of State Legislatures. “Countdown to REAL ID.” (June 12, 2015).

The continued use of unfunded mandates clearly contradicts new federalism’s call for giving states and local governments more flexibility in carrying out national goals. The temptation to use them appears to be difficult for the federal government to resist, however, as the UMRA’s poor track record illustrates. This is because mandates allow the federal government to fulfill its national priorities while passing most of the cost to the states, an especially attractive strategy for national lawmakers trying to cut federal spending.Robert Jay Dilger and Richard S. Beth, “Unfunded Mandates Reform Act: History, Impact, and Issues,” Congressional Research Service, Report 7-5700, 17 November 2014. Some leading federalism scholars have used the term coercive federalism to capture this aspect of contemporary U.S. federalism.John Kincaid. 1990. “From Cooperative Federalism to Coercive Federalism,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 509: 139–152. In other words, Washington has been as likely to use the stick of mandates as the carrot of grants to accomplish its national objectives. As a result, there have been more instances of confrontational interactions between the states and the federal government.

The Clery Act

The Clery Act of 1990, formally the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, requires public and private colleges and universities that participate in federal student aid programs to disclose information about campus crime. The Act is named after Jeanne Clery, who in 1986 was raped and murdered by a fellow student in her Lehigh University dorm room.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Clery Act Compliance Division is responsible for enforcing the 1990 Act. Specifically, to remain eligible for federal financial aid funds and avoid penalties, colleges and universities must comply with the following provisions:

  • Publish an annual security report and make it available to current and prospective students and employees;
  • Keep a public crime log that documents each crime on campus and is accessible to the public;
  • Disclose information about incidents of criminal homicide, sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, arson, and hate crimes that occurred on or near campus;
  • Issue warnings about Clery Act crimes that pose a threat to students and employees;
  • Develop a campus community emergency response and notification strategy that is subject to annual testing;
  • Gather and report fire data to the federal government and publish an annual fire safety report;
  • Devise procedures to address reports of missing students living in on-campus housing.

For more about the Clery Act, see Clery Center for Security on Campus,

Were you made aware of your campus’s annual security report before you enrolled? Do you think reporting about campus security is appropriately regulated at the federal level under the Clery Act? Why or why not?