(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE US NEWS AND WORLD REPORT)
As Nevada Sen. Dean Heller was trying to convince his colleagues to back the most recent GOP effort to undo the Affordable Care Act, his state’s Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, was thwarting it, signing his name to a bipartisan letter from governors opposing the bill and putting the legislation in peril. Meanwhile, in New York, as President Donald Trump fielded criticism for a United Nations speech many saw as isolating and combative, California Gov. Jerry Brown was doing his own version of diplomacy, meeting with world leaders, including the U.N. Secretary-General, to talk about climate change and adherence to the Paris agreement Trump has lambasted. The previous week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that a bipartisan coalition of 14 states and Puerto Rico were already on track to meet or exceed the Paris standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
So who needs Washington?
Congress may be unable or unwilling to pass major legislation. Trump might be threatening to pull out of international agreements on trade, the environment and nuclear security, shrinking America’s footprint on the world stage. But governors and states, lauded as laboratories of democracy at best and recalcitrant junior players at worst, are stepping up to fill the power void. And less than a year into Trump’s presidency, one the commander-in-chief pledged would mark a major upending of policy and politics, it is the governors and state attorneys general who are wielding the influence.
“Governors tend to be more pragmatic than members of Congress,” so while they may have ideological agendas, they are focused on problem-solving and keeping within mandated budget limits, says John Kincaid, a Lafayette College government and public service professor who teaches a course in federalism. And while governors are more empowered to stop federal policies or legislation than to force their enactment, the state players can have a great deal of influence over how the whole nation – and not just their constituencies – live, experts say.
Governors have long pushed back against the policies and mandates of administrations in the other party, notes Robert Mikos, a law professor at Vanderbilt University and an expert of state-federal relations. But the trend may be exacerbated because of Trump’s presidency and Democrats’ minority status in the nation’s capital, he says.
“In part, it reflects the change in administration and having a single party in control of Washington that makes people turn more to the states. It may be accentuated now, given this administration. There may be more hostility to it than there was with prior administrations,” Mikos adds. But while Democratic governors have aggressively pushed back on predictable issues – such as mandating birth control coverage by health insurers, as Oregon has done, or becoming a “sanctuary state” to protect undocumented immigrants, as California is doing – governors are setting the agenda on a bipartisan basis as well.
But there is a great deal of bipartisan efforts by governors as well of late. Most recently, 10 governors (five Democrats, four Republicans and a conservative independent) sent a letter to congressional leaders opposing the Graham-Cassidy bill to undo key elements of Obamacare. The measure would give more authority to the states in implementing details of the law, which is typically appealing to governors. But it also block-grants Medicaid, raising fears that a pot of federal cash many states rely on to pay for constituents’ health care would be cut. Some governors also have already built assumptions of federal Medicaid payments into their budgets – and unlike the federal government, all states except for Vermont are legally required to have balanced budgets.
The letter – which called for a bipartisan approach and “regular order,” meaning congressional hearings and consideration of Congressional Budget Office estimates – is notable because it includes the signature of Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and Sandoval. Alaska’s senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, is a swing vote on the measure, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to put up for a vote next week. Sandoval, the chair of the National Governors Association, openly rejected a bill co-sponsored by Heller, who is considered the most vulnerable GOP incumbent senator next year.
Anyone who thinks the governors’ views will get lost in a cacophony of special-interest dissent need only look at Arizona, says John Dinan, a politics and international affairs professor at Wake Forest University. “In casting the deciding vote to kill the earlier repeal effort this summer, Sen. McCain said he was voting no in part because of the concerns of his own state’s governor,” Dinan notes but given Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s support for Graham-Cassidy, the governor also “could therefore be decisive in enabling Sen. McCain to vote for the current repeal bill and therefore lead to its passage.”
Meanwhile, as Congress fiddles with legislation to repeal Obamacare, a bipartisan team of governors, Colorado Democrat John Hickenlooper and Ohio Republican John Kasich, are working on their own offer, a plan that would tinker with Obamacare around the edges without undoing its basic tenets, such as the individual mandate.
“The ACA stuff is interesting because it involves bipartisanship among governors in a way Congress has been unable to do,” Mikos says. While Congress is under no obligation to consider a legislative approach proposed by governors, the state chief executives can put pressure on the feds or go their own way in the absence of action from Washington.
Even on matters normally reserved for the nation’s chief executive, governors are taking the lead, ignoring – and arguably underscoring – Trump’s responses. The president, for example, has been criticized for placing blame on both the white supremacist marching in Charlottesville as well as the protesters who opposed them. The NGA, meanwhile, issued an unequivocal statement on the deadly conflict, saying, “The nation’s governors strongly condemn the violent attack perpetrated by white supremacists in Charlottesville.”
On climate change, too, governors in both parties are implementing environmental policies Trump has rejected as too onerous on business. At the U.N., Brown announced that 14 states and Puerto Rico were on schedule to meet the environmental protection standards of the Paris accords, despite Trump’s announcement he intends to withdraw from the pact.
Individual state efforts can go a long way in making de facto national policy, experts note. If states and localities indeed continue their commitments despite new federal policy, the nation will end up meeting half its Paris commitments by 2025 anyway, according to a recent report by NewClimate Institute and The Climate Group.
[PHOTOS: The Big Picture – September 2017]
And while federalism” and “states rights” have historically been connected to anti-civil rights positions, the concepts can also be used to advance minority rights, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken points out in a piece on “the new progressive federalism” in the journal Democracy. For example, Gerken notes, the momentum for same-sex marriage built after Massachusetts and San Francisco just went ahead and did it, accelerating an effort that had been limited to editorial pages and public marches. And, advocates have noted, the domino-like approval of same-sex marriage by states made it hard for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against it.
The sheer size and economic influence of states can push national policy and trends as well. Texas, with its big buying power in school textbooks, has an outsized influence on details such as questioning evolution in science textbooks. And while California’s greenhouse emissions standard might not be much liked by industry, which one would refuse to do business with the Golden State, which has the sixth-biggest economy in the world? And when states can’t stop Washington from passing policies, they can slow-walk their implementation or scream so loudly Washington is forced to regroup. When states complained it was impossible to meet the standards of No Child Left Behind, for example, the Obama administration offered them waivers (and Congress later tweaked the law).
The failure of the White House and Congress to agree on a number of issues, then, may just create the vacuum for governors to step in – and step up, analysts and individual governors say. “America is not run by Donald Trump,” California Gov. Brown said in New York during the U.N.’s annual meeting. “We are a nation of diverse power centers.” And they are already flexing their collective muscles.