Why Governors Could Teach Washington a Lesson

Michael Catalini

Washington is mired in gridlock. The last Congress passed a record-low number of bills. The Senate hasn’t passed a budget in over three years. Major spending cuts are slated to automatically take place, because both parties can’t reach a consensus on how to handle spending.

Despite the inactivity in the nation’s capital, states are taking the lead in passing consequential legislation that could end up impacting the debate in Washington.  Thirty-seven of the 50 states have one-party control of state government, making it much easier for the majority party to pass a partisan agenda without significant roadblocks.

In Kansas, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is seeking to end the income tax, a move that’s possible, given the overwhelmingly Republican state Legislature. Vermont is moving closer to a single-payer health care system. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill late last year that would let illegal immigrants who qualify for a federal work-permit program to get driver's licenses. Alabama reformed its public-employee pension plan. Even as Obama is pushing increased gun-control measures, South Dakota and Michigan passed legislation that would permit guns in schools.   

Indeed, in 2012 alone, 29,000 bills and resolutions, many of which are coming on line now, made their way through statehouses, according to figures from the National Council of State Legislatures.

Governors are leading the effort, many of them with larger political ambitions. Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley made gun control a central part of their agenda. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have waded into the national political debate by blocking implementation of parts of the Affordable Care Act.

On the one hand, state officials are compelled to work together.

"There's just so much pressure in state capitals. Generally the norm, the pressure, is to work together. That's the default. Then they get to Washington and the starting position is partisan combat," said Tim Storey, an elections analyst for the National Council of State Legislatures.

In general, experts say, state governments tend to get more done than the federal government because, unlike the federal government, most states have to balance their budgets. Budgets become driving forces for the states, which triggers policy legislation that you don't see at the federal level.

"There's no comparison. Legislatures are always sort of ahead [compared to] Congress," Storey said.

(Image courtesy of the National Council of State Legislatures)