States Hope for Better Deal in New Congress
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
When the 110th Congress convenes in January, there will be a new Democratic majority negotiating with a Republican president and, state leaders hope, a new relationship between the federal government and the nation's 50 statehouses.
State lawmakers of both parties will be looking for relief from some federal policies imposed on states under the GOP's watch, including expensive new rules for driver's licenses and education mandates under the No Child Left Behind Act. In addition, a growing number of state policies targeting illegal immigration and global warming will put pressure on new Democratic leaders in Congress to answer states' calls for greater federal involvement.
The new political climate in Congress also is likely to sweep off the table GOP proposals that would have usurped states' authority in medical malpractice cases and exerted greater federal control over the National Guard during natural disasters.
While the Republican Party traditionally was known as a supporter of states' rights, it hasn't lived up to that reputation since taking control of Congress and the White House. State leaders hope the turnover in Washington, D.C., will stanch what they describe as an unprecedented expansion of federal power over states during the term of President Bush, a former Texas governor.
"You know, it's the Republican Party that always talks about states' rights and the federal government having less to say about it. But on so many important issues it hasn't been that way," said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), who handily won re-election this year over Republican challenger and Hall-of-Fame football player Lynn Swann.
Rendell told Stateline.org he looks forward now to "a better relationship, not so much of a hostile relationship as we've had with the federal government."
The Nov. 7 elections put Democrats in the majority of both congressional chambers for the first time since 1994. The party won at least 28 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and six seats in the U.S. Senate.
Democrats also won six new governorships on Election Day and will hold 28 of 50 state executive positions. Unofficial results show Democrats netted more than 300 state legislative seats and gained control of both legislative chambers in 23 states, more than they have controlled since 1994, up from 19 currently. Republicans are projected to control both chambers in 16 state legislatures, down from 20 currently. Ten statehouses are split between the parties. (Nebraska has a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature and legislative control in one chamber of the Montana and Pennsylvania legislatures is hanging on the outcome of a handful of narrow elections that are being contested.)
At the top of states' congressional wish list are more time and money to comply with the federal Real ID Act of 2005, which was passed to keep driver's licenses out of the hands of terrorists and to make it tougher for illegal immigrants to get state-issued identification.
A September survey of state motor vehicle administrators estimated the measure could cost states $11 billion over five years, mostly for reissuing 245 million existing driver's licenses. State officials also complained it will be impossible to meet a May 2008 deadline to begin verifying applicants' citizenship and issuing licenses that meet stringent security standards. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has yet to issue specific guidelines for the law, and there has been no money appropriated to help states meet the law's demands.
States are hoping for both legislative and regulatory changes to give states more flexibility and funding, said Michael Bird, NCSL's chief lobbyist.
A longer-standing conflict between states and Washington, D.C., is the No Child Left Behind Act, Bush's 2002 education initiative, which is due to be reauthorized in 2007. States consistently have challenged the costs of annual testing required under the law and its model for measuring student achievement. At least 15 states have considered legislation to reject the law and federal education funds, while bills proposed in four states would have prohibited the use of state funds to meet No Child's mandates. But none of those measures passed.
Congressional Democrats are likely to demand more federal money to aid schools, said Jack Jennings, president of the nonprofit Center on Education Policy , which has undertaken several studies of No Child Left Behind and its effect on public education.
State education officials and Democrats have complained that the funding requested by the Bush administration and appropriated by Congress for No Child has consistently fallen far short of the amount allowed under the law.
The most recent affront to states' authority is language in a federal defense authorization bill, still under consideration by the lame-duck Congress, that would give the president greater power to mobilize the National Guard during natural disasters without consulting governors. Part-time soldiers in state Guard units serve at the direction of the governor except when called to federal duty, such as the war in Iraq.
States already have compacts with their neighbors to mobilize Guard troops and equipment for domestic emergencies. Federalizing the Guard in disasters could bypass state-level commanders who have more expertise with natural disasters, said John Goheen, a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States .
Bill Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures , said Democrats in Congress are going to be skeptical about any proposal by a Republican president to step on states' rights.
Bird, the NCSL lobbyist, said that will include GOP proposals to pre-empt state authority on medical malpractice and tort reform.
On the other hand, new authority being sought by states to tax goods bought over the Internet may now have a better chance on Capitol Hill.
A voluntary system exists for companies to collect the appropriate taxes for goods purchased in 19 states that have agreed to standardize their sales tax structures, but states need congressional approval for a national law allowing all states to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases made across state lines.
Pound said Democrats have shown more willingness to take on this issue. "There's reason for guarded optimism," he added.
In other areas, state actions are putting new pressure on Congress to consider national policies, especially on the issue of illegal immigration. This year, state legislatures considered a record 550 bills related to immigration, and passed at least 77 laws in 27 states, according to NCSL.
"As long as Congress has not passed a reform that puts the nation on a different path, states will be desperate to do anything in an area they have little power over," said Cecilia Munoz, a civil rights advocate with the National Council of La Raza .
President Bush has pressed the U.S. House and Senate for a comprehensive reform of immigration policy, including a path to citizenship for some undocumented workers. But federal lawmakers instead passed a measure to build a 700-mile fence along a section of the U.S. border with Mexico, and Bush signed it into law earlier this year.
Immigration is one area where congressional Democrats are likely to cooperate with the White House in order to show they can work across party lines, said political expert Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute .
Measures to reduce global warming, approved in California and a coalition of Northeastern states, also may give Congress incentive to deal with an issue it has so far resisted. Bush rejected the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty meant to reduce air emissions blamed for global warming.
One Republican this election season showed that environmentally friendly policies could be politically popular. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) boosted his re-election efforts by negotiating with California's Democratic-controlled Legislature to pass the nation's toughest standards against greenhouse gases.
Last year, seven states from Delaware to Maine, including three with Republican governors, signed an agreement regulating power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide, one of the chief gases linked to global warming.
One of the first items that the new Democratic majority in Congress is likely to consider is a hike in the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour — a move that 11 state legislatures have made this year and voters in six other states approved on Nov. 7. Twenty-nine states now guarantee their lowest-paid workers between $6.15 and $7.80 an hour.
But the new Congress' power to aid the states could be hampered by several factors, including a desire to reduce the federal deficit, said Mann. "The irony is that Democrats have become the party of fiscal probity ... and they don't want to abandon this new reputation," he said.
U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D), likely to become the nation's first female speaker of the House, has pledged that her majority caucus would enforce tighter spending rules and not permanently extend several tax cuts supported by the president.