The governors' dilemma

By Charles Bloomer
web posted February 14, 2000

"The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite….The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State." -- James Madison.

Given James Madison's view of the relationship between federal and state government, where is the outrage of governors at the federal government's usurpation of states' rights? Where is the anger at unilateral federal decrees designating millions of acres of land off limits to the people? Where are the lawsuits to get the federal government out of states' business?

In 1995, the Western Governors' Association produced a policy paper titled, "Principles for a More Workable and Effective Relationship Between the State and Federal Governments". This paper bemoans the demise of the "delicate balance among branches and levels of government" that the American founders envisioned for our republic. The overwhelming growth of the federal government has reduced States to mere administrators of federal programs, with little input or control over those programs. The governors called on the federal government to change the federal – state relationship. "[R]einventing government must include a substantial devolution of authority, flexibility, and resources to the state and local levels, where government is accessible to the people and can effectively respond to their needs."

Since that time, some improvements have occurred in the federal – state relationship, most notably in welfare reform. But the Clinton administration has taken actions that belie any change in the attitude of the federal government toward the States. The recent declarations designating the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument and the Agua Fria National Monument in Arizona were unilateral federal actions taken without any prior coordination or knowledge of State officials. In September 1996, the same unilateral heavy-handedness was exercised in the designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. Neither of these cases showed any regard for the "devolution of authority, flexibility, and resources to the state level" that the Western Governors had requested in their policy paper.

Utah Governor Michael O. Leavitt did voice his disapproval to the federal land grab at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Lands in April 1997. The Utah government also initiated suits in federal court seeking to overturn the monument designation. Similarly, Arizona Governor Jane Hull joined the state's two Senators and five Republican congressman in a letter urging the president to "forego unilateral federal action" prior to the Grand Canyon-Parashant Monument designation.

But except for these occasional outbursts, there does not seem to be much open resistance to federal micro-management of states' affairs. Why is it so difficult for governors to actively, openly press for states' rights?

The answer is money.

State governors tread on thin ice as they try to balance States' rights and federal government power. Despite having the authority of the Constitution behind them, governors face the reality of more centralized power in Washington. That centralized power controls more and more money. Instead of vociferously defending the rights of states against federal intrusion, governors are reduced to begging for federal largesse, coming up with ever more clever ways to get their share of the federal money pie, while avoiding offense to the federal benefactors.

The federal government disburses billions of dollars to states each year. Governors know that to stay in office, they must aggressively pursue these federal hand outs. By bringing more federal money into their States, the governors look like the good guys. The governors also know that, if the federal government ever did get serious about returning to true federalism by cutting taxes and stopping the flow of money to the States, the governors would have to raise taxes in order to pay for the programs their people say they want.

The federal government knows that it has leverage. In May 1998, Governor Leavitt agreed to drop Utah's suit over the federal land grab at Grand Staircase-Escalante in return for $50 million, 139,000 acres of federal land, plus mineral rights to coal, oil, and methane gas. The Clinton administration knew it could silence the governor by buying him off with a deal he could tout as being in Utah's best interest.

On February 7, 2000, the White House announced the administration's latest Lands Legacy initiative. The president's budget for fiscal year 2001 calls for $1.4 billion annually to support federal, state, and local efforts to "protect America's land and coastal resources". More than half is to be dedicated to state and local conservation programs. By making over $700 million available each year, the administration knows it can suppress any dissent among the states regarding federal encroachment. Of course, no such threat is included in the president's announcement. One only needs to look at other federal programs to find the implied threat.

In the past, threats of withholding federal highway matching funds have forced states to raise their drinking age to 21 and put in place seat belt laws. Recently, HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo seized control of federal funds intended to aid New York City's homeless. The scent of political punishment is palpable in Secretary Cuomo's action. These actions and the implied threats are nothing less than blackmail and extortion to keep the governors in line.

No governor appears willing to stand up to the federal behemoth even when faced with micromanagement of state functions, functions that are allegedly protected by the Constitution. The end result is the sell out of state sovereignty. And that sell out will continue so long as Washington is perceived as the provider of money.

As more money and power become centralized in Washington, the competition between the federal government and the states is further eroded. This competition would prevent any one level of government from becoming preeminent and tyrannical, and would help protect individual rights.

State governors are caught in the dilemma. Aggressively pursuing states' rights according to the Constitution leads to the risk of being cut out of the federal money redistribution scheme. Governors naturally choose the path that will keep them in office.

© 2000 Charles Bloomer. Mr. Bloomer can be contacted at

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