Academic journal article Policy Review

Spirit of '96

Academic journal article Policy Review

Spirit of '96

Article excerpt

Since the Republican victories of November 8, 1994, the press has focused on the dramatic changes in Congress. With a net gain of 52 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and eight seats in the U.S. Senate, the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Party-switching and special elections have since left the partisan balance in the House of Representatives at 236 Republicans to 198 Democrats (with one independent); in the Senate, it is 53 Republicans to 47 Democrats.

This shift in party control certainly changed the direction of the national policy debate in Washington. Less than two years ago, Congress was seriously debating President Clinton's attempt to nationalize the entire health-care industry. And just a year earlier, Congress passed and Clinton signed a budget that contained what Democratic senator Pat Moynihan called the largest tax increase in the history of the world. Since the elections of 1994, however, the debate in Washington has centered on how to cut taxes and balance the budget in a way that would, over time, cut the size of the federal government from 21.2 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product to roughly 17 percent.

Yet the intense focus on Washington, D. C.,than those inside the Beltway. Conservative reforms at the state level make similar efforts in Washington both more likely and, oddly, less important. The states have led the way so far, and they are quite prepared to march ahead, even if the revolution in Washington stalls.

Although less visible, the 1994 shift in partisan control was more pronounced at the state and local levels than in Washington. Republicans won 24 of 36 gubernatorial races to increase the number of statehouses in their column from 19 to 30. With Mike Foster's victory in last year's gubernatorial election in Louisiana, Republicans now occupy 31 statehouses. More than 72 percent of the American people now live in states with Republican governors. Within state legislatures, the GOP gained 105 senate seats and 367 house seats in 1994 to gain control of seven upper chambers and 10 lower chambers. Since that election, 50 state legislators have switched to the GOP.

These gains have historic consequences. Prior to the 1994 elections, Democrats controlled the governorship and both legislative chambers in 17 states. In these states, all labor law, election law, budgeting and taxes, redistricting, and judicial appointments were fully controlled by the Democratic Party. Republicans exercised similar control in just four states: Utah, Arizona, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. Today, the Democratic Party controls the governorship and the legislature only in Hawaii, Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Maryland, while Republicans reign supreme in 15 states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

The nationwide shift to Republican governors affects the content of the policy debate in at least two ways. First, it intensifies the pressure from the states for more autonomy. In fact, strong lobbying by governors such as Bill Weld of Massachusetts, George Voinovich of Ohio, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, and John Engler of Michigan was crucial to Republicans' efforts in the fall of 1995 to pass their historic budget, designed to give states unprecedented power over welfare and Medicaid programs.

Second, a Republican Congress is more likely to fulfill its commitment to "devolution" knowing that ideologically sympathetic governors are at the helm in many key states. Despite the Republican Party's dedication to federalism, is it plausible that Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole would have fought so hard to send billions of dollars with few conditions over the next seven years to Ann Richards or Mario Cuomo to run Medicaid, welfare, and other programs? Liberal governors would have gladly spent the money, then denounced Republican policies for ending entitlements. …

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