Could last month's election results lead to a thaw in the recently frosty relationship between the states and the feds? It's quite possible. Many of the policies that congressional Democrats are touting, after all, have already taken root in states, which have proven to be much more fertile territory for progressive causes than the federal government during the Bush years.
It's the states that have been pushing stem-cell research, greenhouse-gas crackdowns and minimum-wage increases. Now those issues will have champions in the congressional majority as well, a development that leads federalism scholar Richard Nathan, of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, to proclaim that "this election is not just a political earthquake, it's a policy earthquake."
But the states will be looking for something beyond policy friendship on Capitol Hill. They will be looking for some relief from federal mandates and preemptions. Republicans in Congress talked a good game these past few years when it came to devolution, but they seldom made the idea a priority. Instead, they angered states time and time again by making costly demands on them in the areas of school testing and homeland security, the most recent one being the REAL ID driver's license security requirement.
When governors and state legislators talk hopefully about a new mood in the federal relationship, they are looking back toward the intergovernmental collaboration that marked the early GOP majorities of the 1990s, when governors and Congress worked hand in glove on issues such as welfare and crime. "Whether it's cutting back on federal preemption or strengthening the role of states in education and homeland security, I think governors--Republicans and Democrats-- are looking forward to playing a stronger role," says Craig Pattee, who lobbies in Washington for two Republican governors. "They all want it, and we've been having a bit of a dry spell."
Governors and legislators who have been critical of the No Child Left Behind Act will seek real influence over its revision, scheduled for 2007. They also want action on immigration, which they have new hope of getting, since the Bush administration's relatively tolerant immigration approach has consistently had more adherents on the Democratic side of the aisle than within Bush's GOP. Craig Pattee isn't making too many guesses about the ultimate outcome on these issues, but he does have one prediction about the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi: "She is going to be very surprised by the activism of the governors."