States muscle into power vacuum

Governors assert more authority as power flows away from a fractious Washington toward state capitals.

Forget Clinton vs. Congress. Arguably the most important US political battles of coming months may pit the nation's governors against Washington's federal establishment.

The governors have already forced the Clinton White House to cede claims to $250 billion in tobacco settlement money this year. Now they want the Republican-led Congress to keep budget-cut knives away from federal programs that are vital to states and cities, such as Medicaid.

And by the way - GOP governors want more say in writing their party platform.

These events are just the latest developments in a decades-long trend of power flowing back to the states. Court decisions have given this movement momentum, as have ex-governors sitting in the Oval Office, and general Washington fecklessness.

"Congress is, for various reasons, unable to act on most of the pressing economic and regulatory problems that we have," says Alan Ehrenhalt, editor of Governing magazine. "So the states do that."

Thirty years ago, they didn't. The power of Washington relative to the states was at its height. The cold war was an overarching national preoccupation, heightening the importance of the federal government. Great Society programs such as Medicare and Head Start aimed to solve social problems that parochial state legislatures couldn't handle.

The cost and effect of welfare was a big issue, then as now. So newly elected President Nixon proposed a bold reform that would have centralized control of welfare programs in Washington.

It didn't pass. But the fact that Nixon even proposed such an action is instructive, says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. Three decades later, a liberal Democrat agreed to a welfare reform that accomplished the opposite of what his GOP predecessor proposed: It sent power, and control over how money was spent, away from the Beltway.

This move shows how "a good deal of responsibility has flowed back to the states," says Mr. Pitney.

The parade of ex-governors into the White House certainly hasn't slowed this trend. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton have all shown deference to the interests of states.

Court approval

Meanwhile, a generation of conservative appointees has made the US Supreme Court a strong exponent of devolving national political power.

In a series of related decisions at the end of its most recent term, the high court established that states have considerable immunity from the reach of federal law. They struck down, for instance, a statute that allowed states to be sued for violating federal patent and trademark restrictions.

The size and vitality of state government establishments have grown along with their responsibilities. State and city spending is now larger than that of the federal government.

In the US only 13 percent of public employees are on the federal payroll, according to Governing magazine statistics.

Welfare reform isn't the only area where states are now taking the lead. They're experimenting in education - Gov. Jeb Bush (R) of Florida is pushing a voucher system and government aid to faith-based organizations, for instance. States are regulating health-maintenance organizations, and deregulating electricity - two things Congress has been unable to do on the national level.

"If you look at the important societal problems that governments have worked on in the last five years, Congress has done very little," says Mr. Ehrenhalt.

Consider what's going on this week. Congress and the White House are consumed in a dispute over proposed tax cuts that is unlikely to lead to any passed laws.

The nation's governors, by contrast, gathered in St. Louis for a National Governors' Association meeting, and served notice that they don't want federal lawmakers meddling in their affairs. It's a bipartisan concern on the part of state executives.

Already, an state lobbying campaign has managed to keep a provision in a 1999 emergency spending bill that headed off White House efforts to control a chunk of cash from the tobacco industry's settlement with states.

Taking on Congress

Now the governors - both Republican and Democrat - are worried about the way Congress is planning fiscal 2000 spending.

In a nutshell, that plan has been to move all the easy appropriations bills first, and leave the difficult wrangling over social programs for later. Governors worry that means their programs - Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families - will take the brunt of cuts needed to keep overall spending down.

"We are deeply concerned about the potential impact that deep spending cuts will have on providing key human services in our states," wrote the NGA in a July 23 letter to Congress.

Republican governors at the NGA meeting defended their party's plan for a big national tax cut. But they also served notice that they want more say in plotting the GOP's course, putting them on a collision course with the party's ideological conservatives.

Governors' task forces will meet with experts over the next few months to draw up their own proposals for a national party platform, Gov. Frank Keating (R) of Oklahoma said this week. Governor Keating, chairman of the Republican Governors' Association, said the purpose was to express the GOP's basic philosophy in a manner "that average Americans can feel comfortable with."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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