UF Researcher: States Surge Ahead Of Faltering Federal Government
GAINESVILLE — The 90s may be remembered for the resurgence of the states, not a federal government mired in politics or scandals, says a University of Florida researcher.
“After years of being overshadowed by the federal government, the emergence of state governments may end up having a far more lasting impact than political events or developments in Washington, D.C.,” said David Hedge, a UF political science professor.
Statehouses took the lead in passing new reforms, initiating family leave legislation, managed competition in health care, national service and other measures before the Clinton administration proposed and claimed credit for them, said Hedge, author of the new book “Governance and the Changing American States.” Even the centerpiece of Congress’s 1996 overhaul of the welfare system, the workfare program, had already been operating in many states, he said.
“State governments, long perceived as the weakest link in American politics, are now seen by many as perhaps the strongest,” Hedge said. “That is in direct contrast to the 60s and 70s, when it was thought that the states couldn’t do anything right and the federal government had to take charge.”
Ironically, the dramatic post-World War II growth in the federal government resulted largely from state governments being unwilling or unable to deal with a wide range of problems, including civil rights, workplace safety and environmental protection, Hedge said. “Now as the 20th century comes to a close, it is to state governments that we look for solutions to many of these problems,” he said.
During the 104th Congress, Republican governors such as Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and John Engler of Michigan seemed to spend as much time in Washington, D.C., as they did in their state capitals, shaping welfare reform and other elements of the Republican legislative agenda, Hedge said.
There is a sense that today’s governors are more experienced and innovative than their predecessors, and state legislatures are more professional, better staffed and increasingly assertive, Hedge said. “There is a new kind of career legislator who comes to the legislature at an earlier age, stays longer and is much less willing to defer to governors or party leaders,” he said.
Much of the states’ resurgence came from the federal government through federal grants and mandates, the Reagan administration’s new federalism, and, more recently, a Republican Congress, Hedge said.
States contributed to their resurgence by revising constitutions to strengthen the governors, finding new sources of revenue such as state lotteries, and allowing residents to place issues on the ballot that legislatures otherwise might not dare to consider, such as term limits and tax ceilings, he said.
“(Hedge) provides a concise summary and discussion of what is undoubtedly the most important set of changes to U.S. political institutions in recent times — the transformation of state governments into viable, active and effective political and policy actors,” said Chris Mooney, a political science professor at West Virginia University.
Not all of the news from states is good, however.
Critics contend state governments suffer from the same kinds of problems — excessive partisanship, gridlock and inordinate interest group influence — that plague politics in Washington, D.C., Hedge said. They also charge that some of the states’ policies fell short, giving the states low marks, for example, in managing the environment and reforming the schools, he said.
“While there is evidence for both perspectives about the states’ ability to govern, one thing for certain is that the winds of American politics have changed very quickly,” Hedge said. “The performance gap between state and federal authorities, so glaring just three decades ago, has for the most part, closed.”
- Cathy Keen
- David Hedge