Governors and Federalism

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Each American state selects its governor, the state’s chief executive official, through a popular election. In the early twentieth century, most governors served two-year terms. Today, only the governors of New Hampshire and Vermont serve two-year terms; the rest serve four-year terms. This change represents a trend of the twentieth century to give governors greater authority, independence, and power. These reforms have given governors greater opportunities to participate in and influence federal issues. At first reluctant to participate in national policy issues, governors have increasingly become important players in shaping, implementing, and reforming national policies. This essay examines the rise of governors’ powers, what they seek, and how reforms in the governor’s office have affected their ability to influence the federal system.

Governors are elected by and serve the same citizens and population as U.S. senators. For more than a century, this was understood to represent a division of responsibilities in the federal system with the senators representing a state’s interests in the federal government and the governors addressing the intrastate issues. Many people, and some governors, continue to believe in this strict separation of responsibilities. As the chief executive official bearing responsibility for the state government, however, most governors recognize that senators do not always promote what the governor thinks are the state’s best interests. Former Utah Governor Scott Matheson declared, “Because most senators and members of Congress lack sufficient knowledge about the activities of the executive branch of the federal government in Washington, they cannot be relied on to protect the states’ interests” (Matheson 1991, 26). Matheson was one of several governors who successfully pushed governors to become more aggressive in promoting state interests in Washington.

This shift was slow in coming. The nation’s governors first met in 1908 at the behest of then-President Theodore Roosevelt (some reports suggest that President Roosevelt was trying to persuade the governors to lobby their senators to support his conservation bill, which had stalled in Congress). In 1912, the governors met again and formed the Governors’ Conference (GC). While some governors wanted the GC to push the states’ collective interests in national policies, New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson convinced the governors to use the GC to promote state-specific issues such as administration, budgeting, and uniformity of laws. It was not until the late 1930s, and largely in response to New Deal programs, that the governors began to concern themselves with federal issues. That ended with World War II, when the governors agreed to “cooperate in every possible way” to preserve freedom. By the end of the Great Depression and World War II, considerable power had been centralized in the national government and wresting it back to the states would prove very difficult.

The shift of power to the national government was accomplished, in part, because, for much of the first half of the twentieth century, states were popularly viewed as inefficient at best and horribly corrupt at worst. Governors were referred to as Goodtime Charlies—more interested in appearing in the newspaper’s social pages than leading government. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to return some minor responsibilities to the states, Congress failed to approve the reforms due partially to lack of state support. Those governors who tried to improve their state governments were often hampered by a lack of power that stemmed from a colonial distrust of executive power and by progressive reforms that disbursed executive power to separately elected or independently appointed officials and administrators.

As the federal government became more involved in the domestic affairs of states and individuals, governors saw the need for an organization to represent their interests before the institutions of power in Washington, D.C. The GC was the natural institution to adopt this role. In 1966, meeting at an unprecedented interim meeting, the governors voted to fund an office for federal-state relations in Washington. The office was established the next year, and the name of the GC was changed to the National Governors’ Conference (NGC). The NGC accepted the role of representing the governors’ interests before the federal government. Often these interests were to either increase federal funding or insure that federal funding passed through states rather than going directly to individuals or local governments. The NGC changed its name in 1977 to the National Governors’Association (NGA) as the governors worked to increase their presence in Washington and to disseminate information on good state practices, innovations, and trends (Weissert 1983).

The governors’ powers to direct state government and represent it in the federal system were enhanced when states reformed their constitutions and executive branches in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. These reforms enhanced the institutional powers of governors. The most important of these reforms included the following: longer terms of office, greater control over the executive branch, powers to shape the budget, and stronger veto powers to improve negotiations with legislators. In the 1960s, Joseph Schlesinger developed an index of governors’ institutional powers, which has been updated by Thad Beyle (1994). That index explains the more important institutional powers of governors and shows how governors’ powers have increased since the 1960s (see Table 5). Due in large part to these reforms, the governors’ increased powers have attracted people to the office who were different from the Goodtime Charlies of the previous generation. The new generation of governors is energetic, bright, active, and reform oriented.

Gubernatorial power and authority also grew as a result of the federal government’s expansion of powers and authority. Federal grants often required states to create an administrative agency to oversee the implementation, distribution, and enforcement of the grant. Consequently, federal action channeled through the states increased the states’ reach and services, and specifically increased the governors’ power and authority, because the new agencies fell under the executive’s authority. State governments were also forced to adapt to a changing economy, environmental issues, and growing public demand for less taxes and more public services. Because the nature of the executive office allows governors to adapt much quicker than the legislative branch, these changes and developments provided opportunities for thoughtful and active governors.

TABLE 5. Governors’ Institutional Powers, 1960 versus 2005

Specific Power 1960 2005  % Change
SEP 2.3 2.9 +28
TP 3.2 4.1 +28
AP 2.9 3.1 +7
BP 3.6 3.1 -14
VP 2.8 4.5 +61
PC 3.6 3.0 -17
Total 18.4 20.7 +12.5


SEP—Separately elected executive branch officials: 5 = only governor or governor/lieutenant governor team elected; 4.5 = governor or governor/lieutenant governor team, with one other elected official; 4 = governor/lieutenant governor team with some process officials (attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, and auditor) elected; 3 = governor/lieutenant governor team with process officials, and some major and minor policy officials elected; 2.5 = governor (no team) with six or fewer officials elected, but none are major policy officials; 2 = governor (no team) with six or fewer officials elected, including one major policy official; 1.5 = governor (no team) with six or fewer officials elected, but two are major policy officials; and 1 = governor (no team) with seven or more process and several major policy officials elected. Source: Council of State Governments, The Book of the States, 1960–1961 (Lexington, KY: CSG, 1960), 124–25; and Council of State Governments, The Book of the States, 2004 (Lexington, KY: CSG, 2004), 175–80.

TP—Tenure potential of governors: 5 = four-year term, no restraint on reelection; 4.5 = four-year term, only three terms permitted; 4 = four-year term, only two terms permitted; 3 = four-year term, no consecutive election permitted; 2 = two-year term, no restraint on reelection; and 1 = two-year term, only two terms permitted. Source: Joseph A. Schlesinger, “The Politics of the Executive,” in Politics in the American States, ed. Herbert Jacob and Kenneth N. Vines (Boston: Little, Brown, 1965); and Council of State Governments (2004), 157–58.

AP—Governor’s appointment powers in six major functional areas: corrections, K–12 education, health, highways/transportation, public utilities regulation, and welfare. The six individual office scores are totaled and then averaged and rounded to the nearest .5 for the state score. 5 = governor appoints, no other approval needed; 4 = governor appoints, a board, council, or legislature approves; 3 = someone else appoints, governor approves or shares appointment; 2 = someone else appoints, governor and others approve; and 1 = someone else appoints, no approval or confirmation needed. Source: Schlesinger (1965); and Council of State Governments (2004), 175–80.

BP—Governor’s budget power: 5 = governor has full responsibility, legislature may not increase executive budget; 4 = governor has full responsibility, legislature can increase by special majority vote or subject to item veto; 3 = governor has full responsibility, legislature has unlimited power to change executive budget; 2 = governor shares responsibility, legislature has unlimited power to change executive budget; and 1 = governor shares responsibility with other elected official, legislature has unlimited power to change executive budget. Source: Schlesinger (1965); Council of State Governments (2004), 162–63, 392–93; and National Conference of State Legislatures, “Limits on Authority of Legislature to Change Budget” (Denver: National Conference of State Legislatures, 1998).

VP—Governor’s veto power: 5 = has item veto and a special majority vote of the legislature is needed to override a veto; 4 = has item veto with a majority of the legislators elected needed to override; 3 = has item veto with only a majority of the legislators present needed to override; 2 = no item veto, with a special legislative majority needed to override it; and 1 = no item veto, only a simple legislative majority needed to override. Source: Schlesinger (1965); and Council of State Governments, (2004), 113–15, 162–63.

PC—Gubernatorial party control: 5 = has a substantial majority (75 percent or more) in both houses of the legislature; 4 = has a simple majority in both houses (less than 75 percent), or a substantial majority in one house and a simple majority in the other; 3 = split party control in the legislature or a nonpartisan legislature; 2 = has a substantial minority in both houses (25 percent or more), or a simple minority (25 percent or less) in one and a substantial minority in the other; and 1 = has a simple minority in both houses. Source:

Total—sum of the scores on the six individual indices. Score—total divided by six to keep five-point scale.

Source: Thad Beyle, “Governors,” in The Book of the States 2005 (Lexington, KY: Council of State Governments, 2005).

For example, the budget crises of the 1980s gave the governors the opportunity to stand as the head of their governments, accept greater policy responsibilities, and push for innovative policy reforms. The severe budget crises faced by the states in the 1980s resulted from many factors. First, an economic recession reduced government revenues. Second, as a result of popular antitax movements, newly adopted constitutional amendments restricted many states’ authority to raise taxes. Third, the federal government, under President Ronald Reagan’s direction, reduced federal funding for some social programs. Finally, rapidly rising health care costs drew enormous funds from state budgets in the form of Medicaid payments. In response, some governors successfully pushed for reforms and innovative policies to balance their budgets and provide necessary public services.

While states adopted many innovative reforms, they were prevented from reforming some policy areas due to federal mandates, preemptions, and grant program restrictions and regulations. The most energetic and creative governors chafed under the restrictions imposed on the states by the national government. After some lobbying, Congress allowed states limited “waivers” from federal social regulations in order to experiment with innovative practices. A number of governors took advantage of these waivers to create limited but innovative alternatives to welfare and Medicaid programs. States also experimented in other policy areas including banking, telecommunications, electric deregulation, and insurance reforms. Crafting and implementing these creative programs gave the governors unique policy expertise that they later used to influence federal policies.

Governors saw their power in the federal system grow significantly in 1995 after the Republican Party won a majority of seats in Congress. Congressional Republicans expected to win big in the 1994 election, but they did not expect to become the majority party. After the Republicans won control of Congress, they were forced to shift from proposing policies that would embarrass the ruling Democratic Party to approving policies that would actually govern the nation. Out of power for more than forty years, the Republicans in Congress lacked the policy expertise to craft good policy. Republican congressional leaders turned to Republican governors to help them design significant reforms to the welfare and Medicaid systems, experience that the governors had as a result of using federal waivers to reform those programs in their states. In response, Democrats in Congress turned to Democratic governors for assistance in understanding and countering the Republicans reform efforts. While this created partisan tension among the governors, they were able to overcome it and work collectively to promote a welfare reform proposal that significantly influenced the final bill that was signed into law in 1996. In many policy areas, leaders of Congress sought governors’ policy expertise to help craft legislation.

Governors have many means to access and try to influence federal officials. The most common is working collaboratively through governors’ associations such as the NGA or the partisan or regional governors’ associations. The governors’ associations’ most powerful lobbying asset is the governors themselves. As the chief executive of the state, governors will almost always be granted immediate access to representatives and senators from their state. Because governors are successful politicians who have won elections and can deliver messages to the public, representatives and senators cannot ignore their opinions and requests. That does not mean they will do what the governor requests; it merely means they have to have an answer and be ready to respond if the governor appeals to the public. Governors may also work independently to promote their states’ interests in Washington. Many governors establish offices in Washington, D.C., to monitor the activities of the federal government and alert the governor and his or her staff if there is a particularly detrimental or beneficial issue being considered. The staff of these officials may then lobby the federal officials or get the governor involved in lobbying.

Governors who travel to Washington face certain difficulties. Much of the public thinks governors should tend business at home and leave federal affairs to the state’s elected officials in Washington. During election years, the media often report how many times the governor has been out of the state and in Washington. Governors may abstain from traveling to Washington to avoid the appearance of neglecting “home” issues and “meddling” in federal affairs. Yet, remaining home neglects opportunities only available to the governor in Washington.

Governors may use their office as a springboard to run for the Senate or the presidency. One indication of a governor seeking higher office is how often that governor visits Washington. Politically ambitious governors from medium-sized and small states often try to gain national attention by serving as leaders of the NGA. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton used his position in the NGA to travel to Washington often to lobby for a welfare reform bill that became law in 1988. His successful efforts to pass this bill increased his national profile and his reputation in the Democratic Party. Governors of the larger states like California, Texas, and New York often receive considerable national press on their own and do not need the additional profile provided by holding an office in the NGA. The power of the governor’s office as a political springboard is highlighted by the two following facts: first, between President Jimmy Carter and President George W. Bush, all but one were former governors; and second, in that same period only one presidential candidate with gubernatorial experience lost the election.

While executive office reforms have given greater institutional powers to the governors, remnants of the Progressive era’s efforts to dilute the power of the executive branch remain. In many states, the governor is not the only executive official elected by the public. Some of the other elected officials in a state may include the lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and education secretary. These executive officials, as a result of being elected by the public, have an independent base of support and may consequently ignore or work in opposition to the governor. This prevents the state executive from speaking in one voice and weakens the governors’ power to influence and direct state policy.

Governors like to say that they stand where the “rubber meets the road.” By that they mean they are responsible for implementing policies, and they are held accountable by the public for the policies’ success or failure. Governors, consequently, are likely to see what public policies work and which ones do not before federal officials. This practical experience and public accountability give governors expertise to advise officials in Washington, and a willingness to experiment with innovative policies at home. Governors, consequently, have become some of the leading critics of existing public policies and power structures and some of the most creative and innovative reformers in the federal system.


Thad Beyle, “Governors: Elections, Campaign Costs, Profiles, Forced Exits and Powers,” in The Book of the States (Lexington, KY: Council of State Governments, 1994); Scott Matheson, “Intergovernmental Relations and the New Federalism,” in Governors on Governing, ed. Robert D. Behn (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991); and Carol S. Weissert, “The National Governors’ Association: 1908–1983,” State Government 56, no. 2 (1983): 44–52.

Troy E. Smith

Last updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Banking; Council of State Governments; Deregulation; Education; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Elections; Federal-State Relations; Insurance; Intergovernmental Relations; Medicaid; National Governors’ Association; New Deal; New Federalism (Reagan); Pass through Requirements; Roosevelt, Theodore; State Government; Telecommunications; Unfunded Mandates; Welfare Policy