June 30, 2004 - From the June, 2001 issue

Bush Appointee Elicits Input From Regional Leaders: How Can Feds Best Contribute to Regional Collaboratives?

In a move heralded by proponents of regionalism, the Bush Administration has brought a committed regionalist to the White House in the form of Ruben Barrales. The former CEO of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley is now in charge of the U.S. Dept. of Intergovernmental Affairs. Seeking input from around the country on what a new Executive Order on Federalism should look like, Mr. Barrales recently answered questions from a group of regionalists at the Alliance for Regional Stewardship's Leadership Forum in Pittsburgh. MIR is pleased to present this excerpt.

Can there be something like the [European Community's] Committee of the Regions that begins to provide a national place [to think about regionalism] and to be a keeper of the national regional agenda ?

[I]n many ways there's not currently a real appreciation for regionalism. People understand the jurisdictions of states, cities and counties, but the regional perspective often flops.

With that said, our number one [challenge] is to identify Federal endeavors that may be carried out more appropriately by state or local authority. Number two is [to identify] our opportunities for flexible funding streams-regulatory waivers and other opportunities that increase state and local flexibility, innovation, and accountability. The third is to develop measures for improving Federal responsiveness to state and local concern. And fourth, to enforce those rules, orders and procedures.

We're now in the process of putting together a draft Executive Order [on Federalism], and I would like nothing better than to include an official recognition of the steps we can take to promote solving problems on a regional basis. There are definitely challenges to that, and some folks are actually threatened by regionalism-some consider regions [as just] another level of bureaucracy or government that's unnecessary, or even worse, not responsive to local folks or local elected officials.

So I won't sugar coat it-there are some [serious political] issues that we need to deal with . I wish we could just insert the word "regions" into [our four priorities for the Executive Order], but we have to be very smart about the kind of language we use and the steps we take .

The other point I want to make-especially to those of you who are elected officials-is that [under the previous Administration] the Agency for Intergovernmental Affairs was under the political wing of the White House. But thanks to the benefits of 1) having my boss, 2) both the Chief of Staff and the OMB Director having held my job under previous administrations, and 3) the President having served as a Governor, this Administration has a different perspective [of what the office should be. In fact,] that's what lured me to take on this position. We've now been moved out from the political wing and are directly part of the Chief of Staff's office, which gives me a much greater ability to work with the Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council and others on policy development. There are going to be all kinds of policies and positions coming out of the White House-much like the Executive Order on Federalism-that we'll have our fingerprints on, so we'll be able to include the concerns and hopefully innovations of the state, local and regional leaders.

I want to invite you all to please contact me if there are policies that we're cooking up here at the White House [that you have some input on] or things that are important to you-please let us know. For me to be effective for the President, I'm going to have to be able to share with him the ideas and concerns that you have on the Federal, state, local and regional issues.

We want to have a draft of the Executive Order available for the President by August. My only advice-and you've probably seen it in terms of the President's approach-is to have a limited number of objectives that you [deem most significant] to highlight and focus upon. As I've found out in my brief time here, there is a counterbalance to just about any idea you might have. No good deed goes unpunished; no good idea goes without criticism. In a sense, we have to pick our fights very carefully .

[In regard to the] Executive Order, it looks like items one and two could be accomplished by legislation, and three definitely could be done through an Executive Order. Perhaps you could flesh out the fourth item?

Number four is an issue of enforcement. You can issue an Executive Order, but if there's no consequence for failing to adhere to it, then a lot of work has gone into something that will never be realized. You might say that in certain endeavors, there will be deference to state and local governments , but if a Federal agency overrides that authority, there is literally no consequence. What we're hearing [from] folks at the state and local levels is that they'd like to see a mechanism for enforcement. Once we put these principles and directives into the Executive Order, how are we going to enforce them? Does it mean we create an [enforcement] unit in the White House, within each agency, or somewhere else in the Administration ?

[What we'll probably end up with is an Executive Order plus a bill or list of bills that provide the authority to implement it.]

I want to ask about the Federal Government's relationship within regions. In the transportation field, we formed something of a new model under ISTEA and TEA-21 . There are many people who believe we should look at how the Federal Government could be more consultative and get a broader base of partners in other policy areas. What are the various ways the Federal Government is now relating to regions, and how could there be an improved relationship?

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We're all looking for good ideas that you can measure. The President is very direct about wanting to be able to measure the progress he's making in whatever policy missions he's unveiling. If you think there are specific areas where a regional approach makes the most sense, that's what we need to know. [A] lot of [these policy initiatives] can move onto the Hill or be counted on the White House without getting all the desired input. I'm really going to rely on you to bring to our attention opportunities that may be obvious to you, but for different reasons we might not see. I encourage you to contact me, and I'll also make sure that I'm able to connect you with the folks who are actually at the table developing policy where appropriate.

One way to give significance to a new idea is for the White House to call a meeting. I wonder whether you might consider a White House convening of some sort on regions [so that] folks doing this work around the country could meet with your colleagues at the White House and some of the folks in the agencies who are interested in this issue, to give it the kind of oomph and status that only a White House convening can give? [Secondly, in California, the Speaker of the State Assembly has formed a Commission on Regionalism], and we are addressing the question of how the State government, particularly the Governor, can work more effectively around issues of regionalism. Because you relate to governors, you're an important messenger-not just to the White House, but to governors nationwide-about the importance of regions. I wonder if you've given any thought to how we might work together in bringing that message?

What we want to do is have you come in and help us on the Executive Order on Federalism. That's the very first step. We want to do that fairly quickly, and then we can talk more specifically about having those kinds of events focused on regions. But I am very open to that, and think it's something we should definitely do.

On the second point, to tell you the truth, I haven't thought a lot about the interface with governors. But again, I'd love to work with you on that because I think you're absolutely right: You're having 50 different conversations on how the states can deal with regions more effectively, and maybe that could all be done together.

Regionalism is not a new endeavor for the Federal Government. As a matter of fact, some of the traditional regional councils that are in the room were set up under older Federal regimes. I'm wondering whether there's a way to engage those of us who have been around for a while in the intergovernmental system? Is there a need to explore the role of the traditional "regional council," which has operated well both in the President's former state as governor and in your state of California ?

Once you speak to folks at NARC, who I understand didn't have a lot of interaction with the Intergovernmental Affairs unit of the White House [under previous Administrations], I don't know what more I can do. All I can say is that the doors are wide open for you to come in and talk specifically about issues that are important to you to try to find common solutions.

You mentioned a process of developing a national energy policy, and I assume there's a national transportation policy as well. My question's twofold: how is that being done? And second, there are regional efforts all over the country that can offer input on a national basis-almost a national visioning-on that kind of policy; do you see that being a benefit to this Administration?

To cut to the essential question, it really is a matter of becoming part of the discussion on the specific policy initiative. Again, I can't emphasize enough to give me a call and come to the White House to be part of that discussion. Some of you are most interested in infrastructure issues-transportation or energy specifically; some of you might be more interested in education or workforce development. What you're going to have to do is let us know what the issues are that you're interested in. My job is to connect you with the folks developing those specific policies.

The President having been a governor understands state and local issues and is committed to having a team of folks who incorporate those concerns. It does open the floodgates, I understand, but that's really my job-to make sure the President and others at the White House are aware of what's happening on the ground with the states, regions and localities. So I'm looking to all of you because your perspective wil be incredibly helpful as we move forward developing policy.

The one easy thing about coming to work here for President Bush is that we have a very disciplined White House and a very focused agenda. The President lays out a few things at a time, and says, "We're going to do these few things, and we're going to do them well." As you can see within the first 100 days, the focus has been on education, tax cuts and the budget, and now Social Security. Medicare is coming up soon. But we understand that there are thousands of things happening around the country. That's again why I need your input on those issues that we might not be focused on at the White House. Four years is not a long time to get through a policy agenda, and the sooner we get those issues in front of us, the sooner they can be incorporated into that very focused agenda.

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