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Friday, July 28, 2017

Governors and the Failure of ACA Repeal: Federalism as Safeguard Against National Partisan Politics

Now that the efforts to repeal ACA have come to naught, it is worthwhile reflecting on the role of governors and federalism in halting a national partisan movement. In an age of programmatic and polarized parties, governors managed to forge bipartisan coalitions to stop a dominant national party’s chief policy priority.

That is not supposed to happen. According to Jessica Bulman-Pozen’s theory of partisan federalism, states are just enclaves in which the national parties test their national policies. Republican governors ought to be staunch backers of ACA repeal, while Democratic governors ought to be cheerleaders for Schumer’s rearguard defensive maneuvers. As David Schleicher has explained, state politicians’ marching in lockstep with their national counterparts is predicted as well by the theory of second-order elections.

Why did Bulman-Pozen’s theory misfire? As David Schleicher explains, the theory of second-order elections is at its weakest when dealing with high-visibility executive officials who have the salience to craft their own political identity separate from national parties agendas. I would add that the task of street-level implementation allows executives to buck the slogans and memes of national parties. Sandoval and Kasich have lots of chances to make their reputations and build coalitions beyond a handful of roll call votes: They have less to fear from primary loudmouths and echo chambers.

Whatever the reason, I raise a glass to anti-partisan federalism. As I have elsewhere argued, the trans-partisan tendency of high state officials should be cultivated. In an age of increasingly kitschy, vulgar, empty-calorie identity politics of Coast versus Interior, the governors and mayors can bring the public’s attention back to policy outcomes and compromise. In a reversal of the Wechsler thesis, state politics, thank Madison, can be safeguards of the national government.

Posted by Rick Hills on July 28, 2017 at 11:46 AM | Permalink


I thank Rick Hills for bringing his post to my attention. Although I also bemoan the state of our politics, I don’t think his anti-partisan-federalism thesis makes good sense of the health care debate. For the last decade, health care policy has been dominated by partisan federalism--not only in the challenges to the individual mandate and exchange subsidies, but more powerfully in the refusal of nineteen red states to adopt the Medicaid expansion. Leaving this kind of federal money on the table would have been unthinkable until recently. And the Republican governors of such states were not part of the reverse-Wechsler coalition Rick toasts. On Thursday night, it also looked like the Republican Congress might rely on red states to dismantle the ACA through waivers, rather than provide directly for such dismantling in federal law. The waiver approach may yet prove undead.

But I do agree with Rick that governors played an important role in this debate, and one that was not entirely to partisan type; indeed, Sandoval and Kasich, whose states expanded Medicaid (through some tricky gubernatorial maneuvering on Kasich’s part), did not carry Heller’s and Portman’s votes. We should be attending more closely to high-level state officials because, with intense polarization and a dysfunctional Congress, negotiations between state and federal executive officials have been increasingly shaping national policy (as I describe at much greater length here: http://www.virginialawreview.org/volumes/content/executive-federalism-comes-america). Although partisanship informs these negotiations, they allow for more play in the joints, including relatively nuanced forms of compromise. Governors will be even more important than they were these past weeks if the repeal/replace agenda in Washington (whether in Congress or at HHS) turns back to waiver.

Posted by: Jessica Bulman-Pozen | Jul 30, 2017 8:35:55 PM

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