Promoting good governance: Lessons from the states in overcoming partisan gridlock

A federal system of government affords policymakers the opportunity to accomplish the same ends through a variety of means. Faced with a Congress that is increasingly gridlocked, state governments are tasked with solving some of the problems that federal government cannot agree to solve. Examples of voters appealing to their state governments to circumvent unfavorable national policy climates have been numerous for the past several years.

Twenty four states and the District of Colombia have made marijuana legal for medical use, and four states have now made recreational use legal as well. These actions have come in the form of ballot initiatives and laws passed through the state legislature, but each represents the will of state residents, diverging from national-level representation. In other cases, states have spearheaded new and innovative initiatives to provide broader access to education and job training in areas where the federal government has fall short or outright refused to support. Even in policy areas with a substantial federal role—such as expanded health care coverage—some of the best examples of success come from state-level efforts to implement provisions of the Affordable Care Act, through Medicaid expansion and the development of state-level exchanges. The federal government is not without policy achievements, but some of the most interesting and impactful efforts are being made in the states.

Governors John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) and Steve Beshear (D-Ky.) are at the front lines of these efforts. Though both governors are Democrats, the views of their respective constituents vary wildly. Although some progressive policies have emerged out of each state, the governors often face a delicate balance in states with deeply conservative segments of the population. On social policy, budgeting, economic development, energy exploration, public health, public safety, and myriad other issues, Beshear and Hickenlooper have seen partisan fights up close and guided their states through them.

In the process, both governors have tried to make government work better, introducing reforms and accountability measures to make sure each state government is efficient and effective. As part of his chairmanship of the National Governors Association, Hickenlooper is making good government the focus of his work, sharing with fellow governments’ policies and efforts that can make for serious change across the country.

On Friday, February 20, Brookings will host Governors Hickenlooper and Beshear for a candid conversation about good governance and the challenges (and successes) of policymaking at the state-level.  John Hudak, Governance Studies Fellow, will facilitate this discussion, focusing on how both Governors have managed to lead effectively despite diverse and sometimes polarized constituencies. For those who are cynical about the ability of the federal government to bridge the partisan divide, this event will offer lessons from the states that can help convince Americans that under the right conditions—and with the right leadership—government can work.

Register to attend the event or watch the webcast here.

Curtlyn Kramer contributed to this post.