A Long Way from Austin

Donald F. Kettl
Donald Kettl
Donald F. Kettl Donald F. Kettl is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution as well as Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy

April 1, 2003

Yet again, the nation’s governors were hopeful when one of their own was elected president. George W. Bush rode to Washington on the record he built in Texas, and he pledged to transform federal relations with statehouses around the country.

“I loved being the governor of Texas,” Bush told the governors at a state dinner shortly after his inauguration. “In my six years, I placed great value on the advice of fellow governors, and made many friendships which continue to this day.”

Two years into his term, however, White House relations with the governors are as rocky as they’ve been in decades. States (and localities as well) are complaining that long-promised funds for homeland security have amounted to only a trickle. The administration’s proposal to stem the states’ hemorrhaging Medicaid budgets generated a tepid response.

More than a dozen states have filed suit to block the Bush administration’s reinterpretation of regulations governing coal-fired power plants, while seven state attorneys general are suing EPA for failure to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

In sum, fissures are spreading throughout the intergovernmental system. So much for the hope of some governors that, by electing one of their own, the states would have a friend in the White House.

That’s scarcely surprising. Four of the past five presidents have been governors, and none has proved much of a friend to the states. Jimmy Carter, who had been governor of Georgia for a single four-year term, came to the White House in 1977 at a time that represented the high water mark for federal aid, especially grants for traditional urban programs, such as community development. The water began to recede shortly after Carter took office. Ronald Reagan, a two-term California governor, sharply accelerated the federal rollback. Bill Clinton, who had been a governor for 12 years—longer than any president in U.S. history—ended “welfare as we know it” by passing the toughest problems back to the states to deal with.

President George W. Bush has, if anything, been even less sympathetic to his former colleagues. There is no better example of that than the dispute over Medicaid. When the governors came to Washington in February, facing enormous budget shortfalls for which Medicaid costs were in large part responsible, they were met at the White House with what one participant, Democratic Governor Gary Locke of Washington State, referred to as “nothing but great smiles and rhetoric.” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson offered the governors a Medicaid relief plan that made no provision for prescription drugs or other discretionary state Medicaid costs, a plan that most of the governors dismissed as providing no real relief at all.

Why does this scenario replay itself in one administration after another? In part, it’s because the world looks—and works—a lot different from the Oval Office. As the events of September 11 painfully underlined, international issues tend to squeeze domestic problems off the president’s agenda. Candidate Bush pledged to keep the United States out of Third World nation-building. President Bush found himself committed to it, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. While the administration has shown interest in spending domestic money to provide drug coverage to senior citizens—an investment likely to repay itself in political dividends for the Republican Party—sympathy for the states and their problems is not on the agenda.

But it would be a mistake to portray this tension simply as a battle between a former governor and 50 current state chief executives. It also reflects differences of opinion within the ranks of the governors themselves.

During the Washington meeting in February, Democratic governors clashed with their Republican colleagues over the whole issue of federal aid. The Democrats arrived intending to push for a big boost in it. “We didn’t come to Washington,” said Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa, “to be potted plants or cheerleaders for administration policies.” Republican governors may not have aspired to be potted plants either, but they quickly disassociated themselves from the request for substantial federal help. A closed-door meeting finally produced a weaker consensus document.

Even the National Governors’ Association, long respected as a bipartisan Washington arm for research and lobbying, is under attack from within. Two states with Republican governors—Texas and Hawaii—have withdrawn from NGA, and conservative organizations have pushed more governors to do the same. Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne, the incoming NGA chairman, has promised staff changes, but that hasn’t silenced the chorus of conservative activists who complain that governors of both parties are simply in the habit of trekking to Washington to support a “tax-and-spend agenda.”

The dispute between the states and Washington is about the flow of federal cash. But, more fundamentally, it reveals deep divisions among the governors about what government ought to do—and who ought to pay.