Bush Out to Polish Federalism Image With Pending Order

President George W. Bush is in the process of drafting an executive order on federalism that might help defuse criticism that he has betrayed his roots by overriding state authority on patients' rights, taxes, education, energy, the environment, and the faith-based initiative.

Bush, a former Texas governor, called in his campaign and early in his administration for a more even balance of power between Washington, D.C. and the states, but state officials say he has not practiced what he preached.

Proponents of states rights level these specific criticisms:

  • That the national Patients Bill of Rights bill Bush favors would weaken or nullify legal protections for customers of managed care organizations that already in exist in many states.
  • That the Bush administration's energy plan would usurp state authority over the placement of electric power transmission lines.
  • That Bush's recently enacted tax cut requires states to shoulder about 25 percent of the cost of repealing the estate tax. The National Governors' Association says the new law "would cut states' share of revenues from the estate tax at a time when most states are facing budget cuts."
  • That Bush's push for statewide testing of all public school students grades 3 through 8, initially in reading and math but eventually in hisrtory and science as well, amounts to an unfunded mandate that would cost the states billions of dollars.
  • That as part of its proposed 2002 budget, the Bush administration would shift $25 million from the Environmental Protection Agency to a grant program to help the states improve their enforcement of federal environmental laws. Many states are unable or unwilling to vigorously enforce federal environmental laws, state officials said.
  • And that the president's faith-based initiative would exempt some church-run programs from state anti-discrimination or civil rights laws.

Bush's actions may not be much different than those of his predecessor, who was also seen as encroaching on states' rights. Laws passed during President Clinton's eight years in office weakened states' capacities to protect consumers on securities activities, pre-empted state regulation of local telecommunications businesses, and cut off states' taxing authority over Internet transactions.

State officials are looking for reassurance from Bush in his forthcoming executive order. Frank Shafroth, director of state and federal relations for the National Governors' Association, said his organization hopes Bush's order will create a standing body to hold the administration accountable for proposed actions that could override state authority. Such a unit already exists in Congress.

"By the end of this year, we'll have a clearer view of whether there is a commitment to change the way the federal government deals with states," Shafroth says.

Pietro Nivola, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, says ordinary citizens should care about the state-federal relationship because too much centralization puts power in the hands of a limited group of decision-makers and threatens democracy.

Citizens should also care about the state-federal balance because when Washington, D.C. places demands on states, it could force taxpayers to pay higher state taxes or to accept reductions in the quality of education and public safety, proponents of states' rights say.

At a meeting with governors at the outset of his presidency, Bush said he would work to ensure a healthy balance in federal-state relations. "When the history of this administration is written, it will be said the nation's governors had a faithful friend in the White House...I'm going to make respect for federalism a priority in this administration," he said.