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2010-11-01 | State Governors Play Key Role in U.S. Government

State Governors Play Key Role in U.S. Government

01 November 2010

Washington - No presidential contest will top U.S. ballots on November 2, but citizens in 37 states are choosing a chief executive who probably will have a greater effect on their daily lives than a U.S. president ever will.

Governors head state governments that loosely mirror the U.S. federal government with executive, legislative and judicial branches. The governor performs many of the same functions at the state level that the U.S. president does at the national level: sets policy, appoints department heads, prepares and administers a budget, recommends legislation, and signs laws. In most states, the governor also plays an important role in appointing state and local judges.

The U.S. government is a federal system in which a very specific set of powers and responsibilities is assigned to the central government, a deliberate choice by the nation's founders to guard against the possible oppression of individual rights. The U.S. Constitution stipulates that all powers not expressly given to the federal government are reserved to the states and to the people.

"The federal government in the United States runs very, very few programs," Raymond Scheppach, executive director or the National Governors Association, told an international group of journalists at a Washington briefing October 26. "They basically run Social Security, they run the Medicare program, they run national defense and the national parks. Almost everything else in the system is really run by state government and therefore governors have a very big role."

Most federally funded programs are actually carried out by the states, Scheppach said, pointing to activities like health care, education, infrastructure maintenance and emergency preparedness.

In the U.S. system, states have a high degree of autonomy. States cannot enact laws that are in conflict with the U.S. Constitution and cannot engage in activities that are set aside as exclusively federal, such as negotiating treaties, but have broad jurisdiction in most other areas of governance. States levy taxes, establish license fees, determine how state revenues are spent, regulate businesses and administer the systems of health and safety services that affect the daily lives of their citizens.


Historically, the sitting president's party tends to lose four or five gubernatorial seats in a midterm election, and the anti-government, anti-incumbent sentiments being voiced by 2010 American voters are unlikely to improve that record.

Why does that matter?

In the year that follows the national census taken at the end of each decade, the boundaries of congressional districts are redrawn to fairly allocate the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, the chamber in Congress with representation based on population. In contrast, each state, regardless of population, has two seats in the U.S. Senate.

When a state gains or loses a congressional seat, district boundaries are redrawn by the governor and the state legislature. Boundaries can be established in a way that will help - or hurt - the ability of the incumbent to keep that seat in the 2012 election. That redistricting process has created some bizarrely shaped district maps over the years, an outcome known as gerrymandering.

Redistricting will be particularly important, Scheppach said, "for states that are gaining a seat or two or losing a seat or two," citing Texas, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

A governor serves as the head of his or her political party within the state, an important role during a presidential campaign. In 2012, the Democratic Republican presidential candidates will look to governors for fundraising, volunteers and field coordination as they mount their campaigns.

Holding the governor's house in 2012 "may mean that party gets 1 or 2 percent more vote in the presidential than when the governor does not control the party," according to Scheppach.

In the meantime, governors - those newly elected and those already serving - will be making their voices heard in Congress, weighing in aggressively on a range of legislative issues.

"Governors, because they run all of those domestic programs, really feel that they know a lot about how to run them and how the Congress ought to write new laws with respect to the programs so that they can be run more efficiently," Scheppach said, adding that "if you look at U.S. federal legislation, you will find that most of it actually started out in a state. So if you look at major breakthroughs and changes, be it clean air, be it welfare, be it cap-and-trade, you'll find that it started in states and then has moved to sort of groups of states."


Scheppach underscored the importance of governorships as training grounds for national leadership.

"For example, we have 10 or 12 former governors that are in the U.S. Senate at this time," he said, listing Lamar Alexander, Thomas Carper, George Voinovich and Mark Warner as examples. "So if you've had a governor who's pretty popular, they have a good shot politically of becoming a senator."

Then again, former governors might find their next job in the Cabinet.

In the Obama administration, former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius heads the Department of Health and Human Services, Iowa's Tom Vilsack the Department of Agriculture, Washington's Gary Locke the Commerce Department and Arizona's Janet Napolitano the Department of Homeland Security.

"You had four [in] the previous [George W. Bush] administration," Scheppach said. "In fact, you'll find that [in] the largest federal agency, which is Health and Human Services, the last three secretaries were former governors."

But the most important political job to which a former governor can aspire is the U.S. presidency, and governors have been judged qualified applicants by U.S. voters in the past few decades.

Of the six most recent U.S. presidents, four - George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter - had served as their state's chief executive.

"So, again, that executive experience of running a state prepares you really for Cabinets, for Senate, and particularly for the presidency," Scheppach said.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: