Introduction to Governors
Roles, Functions and Powers of the Governors
- Chief Legislator
- Chief Executive
- Chief of State
- Crisis Manager
- Chief Judge
- Chief of Party
- Intergovernmental Liaison
- Military Chief
- Formal Powers
- Other Formal Resources
- Informal Powers
ROLES, FUNCTIONS, AND POWERS OF THE GOVERNORS
Chapter 2, from The Executive Branch of State Government: People, Process and Politics
edited by Margaret R. Ferguson
Copyright © (2006) by ABC-CLIO, Inc.
Reproduced with permission of ABC-CLIO, LLC.
Modern governors can be true leaders in their states and the nation. The challenge to incumbents is to employ the many resources available to them in the proper combination in pursuit of the many responsibilities their office entails today.
Early governors suffered from the historical American aversion to executive power. Though some individual governors did manage to exert power by virtue of their personal strength, charisma, or, in a few cases, corruption, the office itself typically granted the occupant few tools. Due to Americans’ resentment of the overwhelming power of colonial governors appointed by the king, early state constitutions (much like the national one) created an executive of limited power. A delegate to the North Carolina Constitutional Convention approvingly described how much power had been given that state’s governor as “just enough power to sign the receipt for his salary” (Lipson 1939,14). Governors in other states did not fare much better.
Over time, states began to sense a need for change. Since 1985, all of the states have made statutory changes (acts of the legislatures) and/or constitutional changes to grant their governors more formal powers. Though this has been a slow process and has been more pronounced in some states than in others, most governors now have the formal tools necessary to perform the duties of a true executive. States have made other changes as well. Most have developed more extensive support structures for their governors. Staff support for the chief executives (sometimes referred to as enabling resources) is much more generous and professional than ever before. This support means the governors no longer work alone. They can draw on the help of others around them to accomplish their work.
New formal powers and institutional support are not, however, the full explanation for the current prominence of the governorship. In addition to legal changes, the modern office has been transformed by changes in society. Greater access to the public via new types of media offers governors a new and formidable power source that their predecessors could scarcely have imagined. It is worth noting here that the idea of an executive drawing power straight from the public was exactly the sort of thing the founders of the country hoped to avoid. They understood the potential danger of a particularly charismatic governor mobilizing the public for his own selfish purposes at the expense of others, especially minority groups.
Governors bring to the office other informal (or personal) powers. Informal powers are resources related to the person holding the office rather than the office itself. Though formal powers do not vary much from one governor in a state to the next, incumbents differ greatly in the informal powers they possess. Such informal powers are nearly limitless, but a sample of the important ones would include the governor’s skill, personality, and popularity. Each of these features can be employed by governors in their pursuit of leadership in their home states and abroad. However, it is up to the individual governor to mobilize these resources.
The challenge for modern governors, therefore, lies in exercising their formal, informal, and enabling powers effectively and in the appropriate combination, which is not a simple task. Not surprisingly, governors have taken on (or had forced on them) many new responsibilities. While they have more tools, much more is expected of them as well. Governors must wear many different hats. They must act as chief executive and chief legislator, head of state and intergovernmental liaison, chief judge and chief of party. The responsibilities are significant and growing. The challenge is great, but the office and the people who seek it are, on the whole, finally up to the job.
To understand the governors, it is important to place them into the larger political context. The growing prominence of the states and the increasing complexity of the state governments both empower and limit the governors. On the one hand, governors have more and better-qualified people and offices around them to help them carry out their responsibilities. On the other hand, the state government is far bigger, harder to manage, and more carefully scrutinized by national political actors. This chapter will examine the many roles that modern governors are expected to play and the array of tools they may employ as they carry out the various duties of their office.
ROLES OF THE GOVERNORS
As noted, modern governors must step into myriad roles. Some of them are constantly expected of the governor, others arise sporadically. Some roles are highly important, others perhaps less so. Finally, all incumbents will prefer some roles while disliking others, and such preferences will surely affect the choices they make in how they use their limited time in office.
The primary roles of the governor are those of chief legislator and chief executive. This combination suggests the overlapping powers of the political systems in the states. In addition, the governor must also serve the largely symbolic role of chief of state on an ongoing basis. The remaining roles—crisis manager, chief judge, chief of party, inter governmental liaison, and military chief—while certainly significant features of governorship, are not as time consuming or as constant. When they do arise, however, they will likely take center stage until the task at hand is complete.
Probably the most important role of the governors in the modern period is that of chief legislator. Given their status and stature, governors take the lead in lawmaking endeavors. They typically involve themselves very directly in the laws considered and passed by the state legislative body. They are not members of the legislative branch, of course, but the tools of. The office of governor and the political environment in the states all encourage governors to assume an active role in lawmaking. State constitutions and laws offer governors some formal tools that they can use in their legislative leader roles, including the veto (package, line-item, and amendatory), the power to present a state of the state address, and the power to prepare and administer the budget. Informal and enabling resources are also important for the role of legislative leader. Informal resources such as their own popularity, their skill or charisma, and a popular mandate assist governors in legislative leadership, as do enabling resources such as having a strong professional staff.
The role of chief legislator is not a simple one to play. The environment in which the governor and the legislators function is sometimes marked by conflict. In fact, the media, the citizenry, and state officials themselves often characterize the relationship between the governor and the legislature as one of constant divisiveness. Yet there are other instances when the governor and legislators manage to work together in relative harmony.
The governor’s place as the highest elected official in his or her party may help to bring the governor and the legislature together, which is especially helpful when the governor’s party holds a majority of seats in the legislature. The role of the governor in the state party organization is also important, and some governors are more successful at uniting the party than others (Morehouse and Jewell 2003). When a party is divided into different camps (or factions), having a large number of seats in the legislature may not really help the governor’s goals in the legislative arena much. Though party strength is important, it does not assure that partisans will follow the governor’s lead.
Further conflict is not only or not necessarily a matter of disagreement among public officials. Governors and legislators may simply view the world of their states differently, perhaps because of the different constituencies they serve. Legislators are elected by and represent a district only a small part of a state, whereas the governor represents the entire state. Because of this, a legislator may believe that what is good for his or her district is good for the state, whereas a governor may try to convince the legislator that what is good for the state will ultimately be good for the legislator’s district.
Differences between legislators and the governors may also arise due to varying lengths of terms. Governors in most states serve a four-year term, while legislators often must seek reelection every two years. In addition, though governors are often limited to a maximum of eight years in office, legislators may serve multiple terms, sometimes spanning the administrations of multiple governors. As a consequence, governors and state legislators (even members of the same party) may form competing opinions about the correct answers to the problems facing the state.
On top of all of these sources of conflict, the making of law is a long and complicated process in every state. Each state except for Nebraska has a bicameral legislature, meaning that actors in two separate chambers must process proposed legislation before it can be delivered to the governor for signature or veto. A proposed law must pass through multiple phases in its journey toward adoption. In a simplified form, the policy process can be divided into four phases: agenda setting, policy formulation, adoption or legitimation, and evaluation. The chief legislator role of the governors encompasses the first two phases of the policy process. To fulfill this role successfully, governors must use their powers (formal, informal, and enabling) in the first phase, the agenda-setting phase, to raise topics to be considered by the legislature. Governors also work in the second phase, the policy formulation phase, to influence the types of solutions adopted to address those problems. They may be more successful at asking legislatures to look at a particular problem (agenda setting) than they are at convincing legislatures to adopt a particular solution (policy formulation). Agenda setting is perhaps easier for the governors, and it is in this phase that they have unique powers. But governors are not as uniquely qualified to lead in the policy formulation phase, though they still are significant actors during this second stage. These two phases of policy making are considered separately here. The contributions that the governors make to the final two phases of the policy process fall under the chief executive role, and these are considered elsewhere.
Agenda setting is the first step in the policymaking process. At this stage, problems requiring governmental action are identified. They are brought forward by multiple actors, including the governor, legislative leaders, interest groups, and the media. But the governor is better able than any of the other actors to place items on the agenda for governmental action. Major problems that affect the lives of large numbers of people are usually the issues that actually make it onto the public agenda to be considered for state government action. The governor’s role as agenda setter arises from several sources.
First, it grows partially from the formal powers and responsibilities laid out in the state constitution. Each governor possesses veto powers, which give him or her a legitimate place at the table of lawmaking in the states and helps to assure that legislators are willing to consider the agenda items that the governor has brought forward. The governor is also required by law to present state of the state addresses to lay out legislative priorities and to prepare and present to the legislature a budget plan. Legislators often look to these statements of the governor’s priorities to set the broad agenda that the legislature will follow that year. The governor’s agenda also tends to represent the major issues facing the state. For all of these reasons, the governor is the key agenda setter in the state.
Calling Special Sessions. One power that a governor can use to focus the legislature on key agenda items is the ability to call special sessions. Unlike the U.S. Congress, most state legislatures even in the twenty-first century do not meet year-round. In seven states, the legislatures do not even hold sessions every year. Instead, they meet biennially (every other year). Since regular legislative sessions are limited in most states, the power to call the legislature back into session is significant. In twenty states, only the governor can call a special session. The legislatures cannot call themselves back to session in these states. In the other thirty states, either the governor or the legislature by a majority vote (or a supermajority depending on the state) can call a special session. In some states, the legislature can only take up issues identified by the governor. In most states, legislators are free to add to the agenda once a special session is called. This power provides the governor the opportunity to focus attention on the specific policy questions that he or she believes are most important. The governor may use such sessions to make the public aware of pressing issues, in addition to getting the undivided attention of legislators. If he or she succeeds in convincing the public of the importance of the issues, the governor may be able to elicit their help in swaying the legislature. Such direct attention to particular topics may put a negative spotlight on legislators if they seem out of step with public opinion.
Even when the governor has the power to define the topic for the session, however, he or she lacks complete control over the work of the legislature. Legislators may refuse to support the governor’s wishes and may adopt a completely different proposal than the governor intended. Thus, calling a special session can be a risky strategy. In at least one instance (in Oklahoma in 1989), though the governor called a special session, no member of the legislature was willing to introduce the governor’s desired legislation. So calling for a special session is a useful power for the governor, but it is far from absolute. Further calling special sessions is often unpopular (with the public and with legislators), since the sessions represent added expense for the state and pull the legislators away from their other responsibilities.
Media Attention. Other, less formal factors also help governors influence the agendas pursued in their legislatures. Governors are visible actors, with ready access to the media. They hold press conferences, town hall meetings, and other public events that attract media coverage. Such events offer a platform from which to address key gubernatorial priorities. Governors are often able to reach lawmakers through media outlets (in addition to direct communication). when governors employ the media, they often hope to reach another audience as well—the public. Drawing favorable attention from the public of gubernatorial priorities often translates into legislators adding such issues to their agendas.
State of the State Address. Governors are required to report to the state legislature on the condition of their states. The state of the state speech is very useful for governors in their agenda-setting role. Most governors choose to offer this speech to the legislature at the beginning of a new legislative session. In the speech, they spend time commending themselves and the legislature for previous accomplishments and praising their states’ beauty, perseverance, and success. Once they put these niceties behind them, governors use the state of the state address to lay out their vision of the problems facing their states as well as their proposed solutions. They often also use this opportunity to request new funding from the legislature for existing programs. Given the limited amount of time available and the limited attention span of the audience, governors usually choose to focus on the items they believe most important for their states.
In addition to offering the governors a chance to communicate directly with the legislatures, the state of the state address helps them reach the public and the media to advertise their policy goals. Governors can be very significant actors in the formation of the public policy agendas in their states.
Policy formulation is the second phase of the policy process. After a policy question is placed on the agenda, the work of understanding state problems, gathering information, and researching and drafting potential solutions is done. While this phase is primarily the domain of legislators, governors have at least a secondary role to play in this stage as well.
In all states except for Nebraska, the legislature is composed of two chambers that are equally involved in making law. Legislative committees (or subgroups within the legislature) typically do much of the work on potential laws. Legislative leaders have a good deal of influence over which bills make it out of committee, which make it to the floor of the chamber for consideration, and which finally pass. The governor has no official place in this process. The governor often relies on others, such a party leaders and other legislative allies within the legislature, to act on his or her behalf. Governors may also mobilize department heads to present information to the legislature and lobby on behalf of the governor’s initiatives.
The governor is not a member of the legislature and only rarely participates in legislative hearings. Though legislative leaders or other legislators may choose to advocate for the governor’s position, they are not really required to do so. Members of the governor’s party are the most likely source of support, but even these members are not guaranteed to be much help. The governor must convince them—-and many other legislators—that they ought to follow his or her lead. A governor who chooses to dedicate time and resources to this process often can achieve notable success.
Coalition Building and the Power to Persuade. Executive power in the American system is often described as the power to persuade (Neustadt 1980). Though some legislators may start out agreeing with the governor, many do not. Some will be indifferent, and some will be opposed to the governor’s goals. The governor must bargain with legislators to try to persuade them to move toward his or her position.
To win adoption of a preferred piece of legislation, one must forge a coalition of supporters. This is where bargaining clearly comes into play. Bargaining requires having something of value to offer to someone else. The governor certainly has things of value to offer to legislators in negotiating for their support. Though the governor, like every one else who hopes to pass legislation, must engage in this time-consuming bargaining process, he or she (with the governor’s many tools) is especially well placed to win. In this way, the governor is an important actor in policy formulation.
Bargaining can take many forms. For example, the governor can offer support on a member’s pet legislation in exchange for that member’s support for the governor’s initiatives. This practice is sometimes called logrolling or reciprocity. A governor can offer to make a trade by indicating a willingness to withdraw opposition to another piece of legislation in exchange for a legislator’s support. Similarly, a governor may offer to really throw the support of the office behind a legislator’s pet legislation if that legislator will work with the governor.
Like the president, a governor also might benefit from the symbolic importance of the office he or she occupies (sometimes called the aura or trappings of office) in the bargaining with legislators. If a governor chooses to do so, he or she can invoke the symbolism of the office to convince certain legislators to change their minds. The governor is a well-known figure in the state, with a statewide electorate. No one else has the same high profile that the governor has. Some governors are able to translate respect and awe for the office into support among legislators. In short, if the governor calls a member in to the executive office, looks across the desk marked by the great seal of the state, and asks for his or her support, it may be hard for that member to say no.
Governors can build support in other more concrete ways. For example, they can per form “constituency service” for members, by helping their constituents with problems. The executive branch is a large and unwieldy mix of hundreds of offices. Constituents sometimes have problems with the bureaucracy that they cannot solve on their own. They often write or call their legislator’s office seeking help. A legislator may, in turn, look to the governor’s office for help. A legislator who has sought and received help from the governor’s office for a constituent may be more willing to cast a vote in favor of the governor’s legislative goals later on. It is smart, therefore, for governors to instruct their staffs to provide such support for legislators when they ask for it. Such positive interactions add to a store of good feelings that the governor can call upon when it is needed. Governors also have numerous jobs they must fill through appointment. Legislators sometimes want to win jobs for citizens in their districts, and these jobs might be used as bargaining chips as well.
Governors can offer a key appointment in exchange for a member’s support on proposed legislation. Finally, governors may offer legislators their political support. They frequently help to raise money for elections and often make campaign appearances on behalf of their supporters.
The Role of Chief Legislator in Perspective
This bargaining process by which governors attempt to influence lawmaking is not necessarily ideal. Governors would undoubtedly prefer their legislatures to automatically line up behind their legislative goals. After all, the governors believe that the goals they have laid out are right and necessary for the good of the state. It is surely frustrating for them but nevertheless a fact of life that legislators have their own ideas. It is not impossible for governors to convince the required numbers of legislators to support their plans. But it is not a simple task. It is definitely much more difficult than simply convincing the legislature to take up a particular agenda item for consideration. Influencing policy formulation is much more of a challenge for the governors than is agenda set ting. No matter the difficulty, due to the governors’ role in both agenda setting and policy formulation, the chief legislator role is among the most important jobs of modern governors. At the same time, this role is a reminder of the limitations of power in the American political system. Even officials as prominent and powerful as governors are not able to make law single-handedly. They must work with others through an established and complicated process to achieve their policy goals.
The second key role of the governor is that of chief executive, Most state constitutions contain language indicating that the governor must take care that the laws are “faithfully executed,” perhaps the most obvious of the governor’s jobs. The role of chief executive is an extremely difficult one that offers few political rewards. While the governor must actively pursue this job, he or she will no doubt find it more time consuming and often less successful than the other key role, that of chief legislator. No matter the inherent difficulties, governors must oversee the execution of the laws. Given the enormity of the challenge, they cannot do this job on their own. They must work with the state bureaucracy to carry out the laws. Consequently, governors are responsible for managing the bureaucracy. This managerial role is another truly massive undertaking. Governors may be tempted to ignore this job and focus instead on the more politically rewarding roles, but this is a critical job for the state. Bad administration of the laws equals bad laws.
Managing the Bureaucracy
Governors do have certain powers to help them do this job. Formal powers of appointment (naming people to the offices in the executive branch) and the ability to reorganize bureaucratic structures to make them more responsive to the governor are the most noteworthy. However, formal power is not always sufficient to overcome the fragmented nature of the executive branches in the states. Bureaucracies are notoriously difficult to manage. They are made up of hundreds or thousands of people and many departments, divisions, and independent boards and commissions. Though we talk of an executive branch, this entity is not nearly as compact and well defined as the name might imply. Members of the executive branch, quite separate from the governor, possess their own ideas about the appropriate policy direction to follow. This situation guarantees that administrators and governors will rarely operate as a close-knit unit. Governors must attempt to create a degree of coherence in order to pursue their policy goals. One way that governors can handle this challenge is to reorganize the executive branch to give them more direct control. However strong opposition will almost invariably meet gubernatorial attempts at reorganization, both from inside the government (the legislative and the executive branches) and from outside forces such as political interest though reorganization might strengthen the governor’s hand at leading the executive branch, the price of reorganization or dramatic government reinvention may be very high.
And in their chief legislator role, governors must interact with many other actors in pursuit of the chief executive role. Numerous important actors, both inside and outside government, must be recognized and sometimes attended to. Bureaucrats, legislators, and interest groups (or clientele groups) are all important at times in determining how the laws will be carried out.
Many different actors are keenly interested in how laws are carried out. The lawmakers themselves presumably have ideas about how the laws are implemented, since they are the ones who drafted and passed the legislation. The bureaucrats with the responsibility to carry them out have their own opinions, since they have skills and expertise in the policy area. Finally, the groups outside of government that will be affected by the new laws want to make their opinions heard as well. Sometimes, these actors form a sort of network among themselves. Since they are concerned about questions in a common policy area, they regularly work together and often accommodate one another’s needs. Sometimes, they form a rather exclusive group. The governors struggle to figure out how to fit in. If a single element of this powerful network opposes the governors’ ideas, they can be quickly sidetracked. Governors need an inside person, which is why the appointment power is critically important for governors serving in the chief executive role.
In the network described here, the bureaucrats at the relevant agency occupy the governor’s place at the table. The appointment power gives the governor the chance to decide who those persons will be. The ability to choose key bureaucrats (administrators) improves the chances that they will share the governor’s outlook and goals. This connection should help the governor be more successful in the administration of government. Appointment is certainly not a perfect solution, however, because the executive branch functions separately from the governor to a large extent. The bureaucracy is discussed in more detail in Chapter 3.
Chief of State
The chief of state role is the third key role of the modern governor. Though this role is more symbolic than the chief legislator and chief executive roles, it is nevertheless a primary feature of the modern governorship. As chief of state, the governor represents and embodies the state. He or she is the focal point for internal and external observers of the state.
In many political systems, two different people exercise the roles of the chief of state and the chief executive. In the United Kingdom, for example, the queen serves as the symbolic chief of state, while the prime minister acts as the chief executive, laying out and pursuing the plan for the “queen’s government.” Lacking royalty, the American tradition is to require the chief executive to serve in both positions.
American chief executives (presidents and governors alike) therefore serve a symbolic role as the central figure of the government in addition to their more substantive responsibilities. In early American history, governors were actually not much more than symbolic leaders or figureheads though this is no longer the case, ceremonial and symbolic roles are still significant aspects of the modern governorship.
The governorship is surrounded by many symbols, both large and small. For example, most of the governors and their families live in stately mansions. These grand residences testify to both the prestige of the office and the civic pride of the state as a whole. Such residences are the location of formal state dinners and other official occasions.
Governors spend much of their time on ceremonial duties. They themselves report that after working with the legislature, performing ceremonial functions takes up the second largest amount of their time. Governors appear at state fairs, cut ribbons at opening of new businesses in the state, welcome foreign businesspeople, and even crown state pageant winners.
Though some of the governor’s other ceremonial activities are purely symbolic, they are nevertheless important because they keep him or her in the public eye and because the people expect such actions. Citizens seem to want their governor to be a frequent presence at public events in the state. Further, turning down groups that request the governor’s attendance is fraught with political difficulties, since this decision will surely lead to disappointment or irritation.
Though some governors attempt to limit these symbolic appearances, others seem to genuinely enjoy the opportunity to mingle with the people of the state in a more informal and less stressful environment than that created by other duties of the office. Further, the personalities of some governors lead them to thrive in these setting and perhaps even encourage these symbolic activities. Other governors find them uncomfortable and a waste of time. Such personal considerations undoubtedly affect how often governors pursue these functions and the enthusiasm that they bring to them.
While some governors worry that ceremonial duties take too much time away from more substantive duties, the chief of state role is nevertheless an important one for the governorship. This role brings with it prestige. It focuses the attention of the media and the public on the governor alone at key moments. This attention, especially when managed well by the governor, can be translated into the authority to lead, which may prove useful to the governor as he or she performs other duties.
The role of crisis manager is not a constant job for the governor, however, when this role is called for, it will most likely dominate his or her time and attention until the crisis at hand is settled.
At certain moments, governors are called on to protect the public or to work to heal their wounds. Governors must respond to crises, both natural and man-made. The governor as crisis manager is filling both a managerial and a symbolic role. A governor’s handling of a crisis in the state can surely make or break an administration. Ineffective or seemingly uncaring responses to problems experienced by the citizenry may raise doubts about a governor and create problems for him or her in other arenas.
Another reason that crisis response is a significant component of a governor’s job is that crises demand attention. The ability to plan a response to unknown crises is limited, and the advent of crisis events demands the governor’s attention no matter what else he or she had been hoping to focus on. Governors who fail to give adequate attention to such crises run the risk of seeming out of touch with or unsympathetic to the people. Neither of these perceptions is good for a governor’s role as chief of state (nor for his or her reelection aspirations).
Many other types of crises may strike a state. When a hurricane devastates a coastal community, for example, the governor often shows up to survey the damage and offer support and sympathy to victims of the storm. Droughts, gypsy moths, and forest fires have all at various times required governors to take action and make it clear that they were “doing something” to address the problem.
Other crisis events are the result of the actions of people rather than nature. Southern governors during the civil rights movement were most noteworthy for symbolic gestures meant to represent their continued opposition to changes in the racial status quo. Governors such as Orval Faubus of Arkansas and George Wallace of Alabama are two examples. Rather than offering leadership to move their states forward in the midst of crisis, these governors used the symbolic power of the office to divide the people of their states. They drew political power from these symbolic acts of defiance, though their actions did nothing to improve the conditions of their states.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, represent another example of governors placed in the position of responding to an unprecedented disaster. Though the entire country was, in a sense, attacked on that day, the reality is that the attacks themselves took place within the borders of three states, the World Trade Center (WTC) towers in New York, the Pentagon in northern Virginia, and a field in Pennsylvania where one plane crashed without reaching its target. Governors James Gilmore of Virginia, George Pataki of New York, and Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania all faced enormous challenges as state, federal, and local officials attempted to grapple with the enormous destruction of property, loss of life, and uncertainty that the attacks and their aftermath created. Though the massive scale of the attacks focused much of the public attention on the national government for leadership, the governors of these states nevertheless bore a large responsibility to reassure the citizenry that their states were responding aggressively to the attacks.
Governors also serve a judicial role. Much like the president, American governors have traditionally possessed the power of executive clemency, which gives governors and pardon boards the ability to show leniency to criminals by granting pardons or commuting sentences. Pardons typically erase a criminal record and restore civil rights (such as the right to vote), while commutations make punishments less harsh. Some governors, for example, can commute death sentences, choosing instead to give a prisoner life imprisonment rather than execution. The idea of American chief executives possessing such power derives from the British monarch’s power. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, gubernatorial pardons were often the only way for prisoners to be released before the end of their sentences. Before states created pardon and parole systems, the governor pardoned nearly half of all prisoners before their sentences expired.
Though governors exercised this power fairly often in the past, the political climate since the late l990s has not encouraged them to exercise their clemency powers. Governors have recently shied away from using them due to fears of appearing too soft on crime and insensitive to the victims. Because of these political challenges, governors often employ the pardon mainly in the last days of their terms, and some governors simply avoid the process altogether. Advocates for executive clemency argue it is an essential safeguard against failures in the overworked court systems. Others argue that the governor should show mercy to offenders when the courts have been too harsh. Though the powers are used sparingly, they are widely available to governors.
Thirty-three states give governors the exclusive and Unconditional power to grant pardons or reduce prison sentences. Four states (Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, and Idaho have taken the pardoning power away from the governor and given it to clemency boards made up of members appointed by the governor. In nine states, the governor remains involved but can only consider clemency recommendations made by state clemency boards. These states are Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas. California law requires a recommendation by the state Supreme Court for the pardon of any person convicted of two felonies. Finally, governors in Nebraska, Nevada, and Utah sit as members of pardon boards and thus share the power to pardon with several other board members.
Some governors in the past abused the pardon power. Indeed, there are some spectacular examples of questionable behavior. Governor Jack Walton of Oklahoma freed nearly 700 prisoners in eleven months and was impeached and convicted for taking bribes in exchange for granting pardons. Similarly, Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson of Texas pardoned 3,700 prisoners in two years. Pardons were apparently available for purchase, with the price keyed to the severity of the offense. Perhaps not surprisingly, Texas is among the states that have removed this power from its governor. More recently, Governor Ray Blanton of Tennessee raised significant questions when he planned to pardon fifty-two prisoners on his way out of the governor’s office. His successor was sworn in three days early to undo these corrupt pardons. Such actions are, however, exceptions to the norm. Most governors seem to dislike holding responsibility for such life-and-death decisions.
The examples provided here have often generated a great deal of publicity, but clemency requests and the governors’ responses are typically more mundane. However, as DNA testing is increasingly effective and available for convicted criminals, governors may have to weigh such evidence in more petitions in the future.
Chief of Party
Another primary role of governors is that of chief of party. This role is not an official job of the office; it grows naturally from the governor’s position as the state’s (and the party’s) highest elective officer.
Particularly in states where the two parties are competitive with one another (rather than one party dominating), this role is very significant for both the power of the governor and the role of the party in the state. Governors who are strong party leaders can be more successful than those who lack strong party support. However, merely carrying the party label does not guarantee a governor strong support from the party. Party leadership is developed over time, the result of working to build coalitions of supporters.
In nearly every case, the major candidates for governor in all fifty states are running under the label of either the Democratic or Republican Party. Consequently, in addition to the personal organization that they build, gubernatorial candidates also inherit state party organizations. Some of these organizations are very helpful to the candidate while seeking the office, and they continue to be important for providing an organization to assist in governing the state after the election.
In many states, the governor plays a significant role in choosing the state party chair. Governors may also participate in fund-raising for the party in order to preserve party strength in the state. When the party organization is strong, the governor can draw on its help in the reelection campaign and in pursuing legislative goals. Researchers have found that governors who head strong state parties (which they define as parties that have greater control over the choice of nominees for the office) are able to draw on party support for their legislative goals. Governors who head weak party organizations can not count on partisan loyalty from their legislators (Morehouse and Jewell 2003).
Certain governors pay very little attention to the state party. Some have been elected without the help of party leaders and may even have been chosen despite the opposition of party organizational leaders. Such governors may view working with party leaders or trying to reorganize the party as wasted energy.
Nevertheless, there is a significant connection between the role of the party in the election process and the role in governing. As Morehouse and Jewell (2003, 167) as asserted: “If their parties were united behind them in the nominating and election process, they would be behind them in the governing process. A united party can provide the votes the governor needs when he or she proposes measures to the legislature for passage. A governor hamstrung by factions cannot hope to govern effectively.”
Governors normally benefit from their parties’ strength in the state legislature. When the governor’s party has the majority in the legislature, legislative leaders may work for the governor: sharing the governor’s party attachment, they may also share the governor’s goals. When the party in the legislature gets very large, it is possible that the party will be divided into factions. If that happens, the governor may have a harder time depending on the party for support.
Some of the responsibilities of the governorship are exercised outside the state. Since the United States has a federal system, multiple governments have the power to make decisions. The decisions made by one level of government often have a substantial impact on the other levels, which means it is vital to pay attention to what other levels of government (especially the national government) are doing. Thus, in addition to being key leaders within their states, governors are important actors outside their states as well. They represent the interests of the state to the national government in Washington, D.C., and, sometimes enter into agreements with other states to address common problems. Governors are obviously not the only actors in Washington speaking for their home states. Members of Congress also view their job (at least in part) as serving the needs of their states and districts. But governors and members of Congress may not always see eye to eye. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives typically serve a district made up of only a portion of a state, so they tend to view their job as principally serving their local district. Senators are elected to serve the entire state, but as members of the national legislature, they must act in the interest of the entire Country as well. Governors serve only the state. As a result, they do not depend exclusively on the state’s congressional delegations to speak on behalf of the home state.
Sometimes, governors (and their staffs) work independently, lobbying to convince the national government of the positions they feel are best for their states. To facilitate this effort, many states have established offices in Washington, D.C. Other support structures have been created as well to help make sure the governors are able to protect their states’ interests in Washington. Many governors have hired coordinators to gather information for them about what other governments are doing, to provide a central coordinating point for activities, and to introduce their perspectives into federal and state agency discussions. Each of these examples involves individual states and their governors taking steps to protect their own interests in Washington.
In other cases, governors may join together to make their voices heard in Washington. For example, the National Governors Association (NGA) is a professional organization of the nation’s governors that advises them on policy concerns and brings them together to identify needs that cross state boundaries. This organization offers a way for the governors to speak together on issues that affect many states. The NGA lobbies Congress, arguing on behalf of the interests of the chief executives in the fifty states. There are also regional organizations of governors, such as the Western Governors’ Association, and partisan groups.
Given all of these developments, the governors have become significant leaders on the national level. The solution to the 1995—1996 budget standoff between President Bill Clinton and the Republican controlled Congress is illustrative. In that instance, governors worked out a budget deal that both the President and Congress could accept. This deal avoided a third federal government shutdown and sent federal employees back to their jobs. Since many governors have thoughts of running for the White House, their profile as national actors is likely to continue to rise. Such positive contributions are good publicity for individual governors and for the governors as a group.
Governors also serve a military role. As chief executives, they are responsible for the health and safety of the citizens of their states. Further, they are designated the commanders-in-chief of their state National Guards. Under certain circumstances, such as during a declared emergency, some states’ governors can exert extraordinary powers to suspend authority, seize personal property, direct evacuations, and authorize the release of emergency funds. Governors are also critically important as the voice of the states in communicating with the public, requesting federal disaster assistance, and assisting residents in coping with the disaster.
The National Guard is often called out to keep peace and order during natural disasters and civil disturbances. Guard members work as emergency relief providers and assist with search-and-rescue operations at the will of the governor. Events requiring the governor to call out the Guard are obviously rather sporadic. However, Guard units have moved into other responsibilities as well. For example, since the late 1980s, they have sometimes engaged in missions outside their own states, such as patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border. Though there has been a traditional separation between military and law enforcement activities, National Guard troops are increasingly putting their skills and equipment to use in nontraditional ways. While on these missions, even outside its own state borders, the Guard remains under the control of the governor.
Since the attacks on the United States in 2001 and the heightened concerns about terrorism, much of the governors’ commander-in-chief activities has been directed toward protecting against future terrorist attacks. National Guard troops have served many roles in the post-9/l1 United States under the authority of both the governors and the president. State and local law enforcement and health workers will be the first to respond to any future attack on the United States. It is up to the governors, in coordination with other local, state, and national officials, to make sure that the systems are in place to respond quickly and effectively. After September 2001, Guard troops (under authority of the president) provided security at the nation’s airports for a period of time until regular security forces could be put into place.
Since the control over the Guard is shared between the states and the national government, the relative power of each has often generated conflict between the governors and the national government. In the l980s, several governors who opposed President Ronald Reagan’s policies in Central America threatened to prevent their Guard units from participating in training there. The Pentagon asserted that it had the power to send National Guard units abroad for training as well as for fighting in conflicts. Some governors argued that the U.S. Constitution, which grants states “the authority of training the militia,” gives the governors control over where National Guard units are trained. The question was ultimately pursued in federal court, where the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with the governors and upheld the president’s power to send Guard troops abroad for training without federalizing them. Questions of presidential authority arose in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks as well. It is clear that the president has the authority to take charge of the National Guard when it is called to duty to deal with war and national crises. But the governors assert that when the Guard is performing domestic missions, it should do so under the authority of the governor. Various laws of the U.S. Congress support the governors’ assertion. The National Governors Association issued a position statement attempting to clarify the governors’ position on the roles of the National Guard in the post-9/l1 landscape:
The National Guard, historically a critical resource in emergencies, can be an effective force multiplier to civil authorities in responding to terrorism at the state, local, and federal levels. In the wake of the September ii, 2001, attacks, the National Guard has expanded its traditional role in homeland defense and security. National Guard activities include securing strategic facilities, such as airports, pharmaceutical labs, nuclear Power plants, communications towers, and border crossings, and have been a cornerstone in protecting our citizens from domestic terrorism. Source: National Governors Association, Policy Position, February 27, 2004, http://www.nga.org
The U.S. military increasingly depends on National Guard units to augment the active forces. Thousands of these “citizen-soldiers have been called up for service in the Persian Gulf, for example, during both Gulf Wars. In May 2004, the national government undertook the largest National Guard deployment in U.S. history (144,000 troops, or 42 percent of the states’ combined Army National Guard troops). The activation of so many Guard troops by the national government leaves states struggling to decide how to respond to challenges at home. In some states, more than 50 percent of Guard troops were deployed. In one state, the figure was as high as 85 percent. Governors must figure out ways to adjust to the temporary absence of Guard members in preparation for challenges that may arise with in their states. The role of the National Guard and of the governors as commanders in chief will surely continue to evolve as the country faces flew and unpredictable challenges.
The preceding sections examined the pivotal roles that governors must play when occupying the office today. To fulfill these many roles, governors must have a variety of tools, resources, and powers at their disposal. These assets come in a variety of forms. Some powers come from the office of the governorship itself. These are called formal, or institutional, powers. Enabling powers also derive from the office. Enabling powers are the staff and other support that the state provides to work for and with the governor. Other powers come from the situation at the time of the governor’s term. Still other powers are inherent in the person who holds the office. These powers related to the particular incumbent are called informal powers. Of course, many different powers may come into play as governors pursue all of their varied roles. Some powers are important in only one of the roles; others are significant across multiple roles. The powers of the governors are discussed in the next sections.
Reformers and researchers have directed quite a good deal of attention to the formal powers of the governor’s office, perhaps because such powers are the easiest to identify and define. When the office provides few formal powers, a governor has to turn to other resources to have a chance at success in his or her official endeavors. These other powers are less concrete and more variable from one governor to the next and are decidedly hard for researchers to systematically measure. Over time, states have made significant changes in the powers bestowed on the governors. Joseph Schlesinger (1965) first developed an index of gubernatorial powers that rated the states’ governors in terms of types of powers, allowing observers to compare the powers possessed by governors across the states.
This index measured four aspects of formal powers of the governor: tenure potential (length of terms eligible to serve and successive terms allowed); budget power (degree of gubernatorial control in preparing the budget); appointment power (degree of gubernatorial control over appointment of key state administrators); and finally, veto power (determined by the item veto power of the governor combined with the size of legislative majority required for override). This index has been widely employed (and criticized) in the literature. Studies have used it to examine the relationship between formal powers and a variety of other conditions in the states. These studies have examined the association of formal powers with many areas, including: gubernatorial support of agency budget requests (Sharkansky 1968), managing the bureaucracy (Hebert, Brudney, and Wright 1983; Brudney and Hebert 1987), and legislative leadership (Dilger, Krause, and Moffett 1995; Ferguson 2003).
Though the index is widely used by researchers, some have complained that it does not accurately reflect the full range of resources governors have. This complaint has greater relevance today, as the governorships now possess resources that were not initially included in Schlesinger’s design. These new resources include, for example, the joint election of governors and lieutenant governors, the amendatory veto, and the development of gubernatorial staffs (Dometrius 1987). Formal powers of the governors and the four features of the formal power index described here should not be viewed as the full explanation of the power of the governor: as noted throughout this discussion formal powers are only one component of the resources governors can use. But even if they are not the whole story, they are a good place to begin because they provide a systematic means to look at power across the governor’s offices in the fifty states.
The veto is the governors’ power to say no to legislation that they oppose. It is the single most important power governors have for affecting the making of law in the states. Again, this power varies from state to state. There are several types of vetoes: the package veto, item veto, amendatory veto, and pocket veto. Each state offers its governor some combination of these. Some governors have strong vetoes; other governors have weaker vetoes. The strength of the veto arises from several variables. For instance, states vary in the length of time allowed for the governor to sign or veto a bill. States also require different numbers of votes for legis1ative override of a veto. When the governor only has a few days to veto a bill before it becomes law, the veto is weaker. Similarly, in states where only a simple majority of the legislature is required to override the governor’s veto, the veto has little force. Since it took a majority of legislators to pass the bill in the first place, it would typically be rather easy for the bill’s advocates to come up with a majority again to override the veto.
The package veto is the most basic veto. It gives the governor (and the President) the power to reject entire pieces of legislation that have reached his or her desk. All fifty governors have this type of veto. Though this is an important tool, it is also limited. When a governor chooses to veto a bill, the whole bill is rejected, even if he or she took issue with only a portion.
An item veto goes a step further. This veto allows the governor to accept the parts of a bill he or she supports and veto other parts deemed objectionable. Governors in forty three states have access to this type of veto. Item vetoes offer governors more flexibility for dealing with legislation once it reaches their desks.
The specific features of these vetoes vary from state to state. In some states, the item veto can only be used on appropriations bills; in others, it can be employed on all types of bills. In some states, the item veto can only be used to remove or reduce expenditure items; in others, it can be used to change language. Even in states where the item veto applies only to appropriations bills, language can at times be affected by the governor because state legis1atures often place narrative language in appropriations bills, defining how the funds are to be spent. In some states, the item veto allows the governor to veto this narrative language, and such a veto would amount to a change in policy. As with the package veto, state legislatures can override item vetoes if they can garner enough votes. Thirty-seven states require an extraordinary vote (depending on the state, two-thirds or three-fifths of legislators elected, or two-thirds of those present) to override an item veto.
In theory, having the item veto encourages a governor to remove unnecessary spending from legislation and thereby hold down state spending. In practice, it seems that the item veto is used most often in the same way as the package veto is: as a bargaining tool to encourage the legislature to add or remove items from proposed legislation (Wiggins 1980). When a governor has only a package veto, legislators can purposefully combine elements of bills they know the governor dislikes with bills the governor supports. Such a practice sometimes forces the governor to accept the objectionable parts of a bill in order to enact into law the desired elements. The item veto helps the governor to counteract such tactics.
Fifteen states allow their governors the executive amendment, also known as the amendatory veto. This device gives the governor the power to veto a bill and send it back to the legislature with recommended amendments. If the legislature agrees to the changes, the governor signs the bill into law. Governors sometimes use this veto to bring together different parts of multiple bills and formulate a single, unified law. If the legislature accepts the governor’s proposed amendments, then the governor has effectively shaped the legislation after the legislature had completed the lawmaking process. Though not much research has been conducted on the use of these vetoes, there is some evidence that these are useful tools for governors attempting to influence the actions of the legislature. Critics of such strong vetoes worry that they may result in a blurring of the lines of the separation between the branches. They may also encourage conflict between the legislative and executive offices. Governors might use this veto to make policy on their own, bypassing legislative intent altogether. This tact would appear to violate the spirit of shared powers set out in state constitutions, though the behavior has been upheld in some state courts.
The pocket veto is a passive way of vetoing bills. This power, allowed in fifteen states in 2002, permits the governor to reject a bill by refusing to sign it after the legislature has adjourned. In all but three states (Hawaii, Utah, and Virginia), the state legislatures lack the opportunity to reconvene to vote on a pocket veto. In the vast majority of states that allow the pocket veto, then, it cannot be overridden, which makes the pocket veto a particularly powerful tool. But it can only be used effectively at the end of the legislative term.
Like most powers of the office, the veto power has been fortified in the majority of states in recent history. In the earliest years, only two states provided the package veto to their governors. By 1812, nearly half of the states had adopted it. As more states joined the Union, they typically gave their governors veto powers from the outset. By 1860, the veto power was firmly established, with twenty-five of the thirty-three states’ governors having the veto. The item veto was first established by Georgia and Texas in 1868, and it quickly spread to other states. In 1889, forty-two of the forty-five states gave their governor some of the veto. By 1949, all but one of the forty-nine states granted at least some veto power to the governor. North Carolina, the single holdout state, did not grant its governor any veto Power until 1995.
Strong versus Weak Vetoes
Once the governor wields a veto (of any type except the pocket veto), the legislature may try to override it. The percent of votes required in the legislature to override ranges from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority of both chambers of the legislature. The number of votes required to override is important because it affects how frequently overrides take place and how useful the veto really is for the governor. If merely a simple majority (50 percent plus one vote) is required to override the veto (as is the case in six states), the veto carries minimal weight. If a supermajority is required to override the governor’s veto (as is the case in forty-four states), the veto is much more powerful, and the override attempt is more likely to fail. Among the forty-four states that require a supermajority to override, the votes required range from three- fifths of the legislators present to two-thirds of the total number of legislators in the chamber. In the absence of an override, the veto is sustained meaning the legislation does not become law.
The force of the veto powers held by each governor varies. To fully understand how weak or strong a governor’s veto powers are, scholars examine a combination of factors. The strongest veto power, for example, would give the governor the greatest power in all categories. It would require a supermajority to override, would provide the governor with the item veto, and would also allow the governor the pocket veto. Such strong veto powers were initially the exception in the states. By 1899, nineteen of the forty-two states that had the veto gave their governors the strongest veto power. By 1949, that number had grown to twenty-nine of the forty-seven states with the veto. It has climbed steadily since then. In 2002, thirty-nine of the states’ governors had very strong veto powers by this definition.
The veto is important for two reasons. First, it offers the governors a legitimate place at the legislative table. It means they have a role in making the laws of the state. Second, since vetoes are rarely overridden, the veto generally means the vetoed bill will die. This near guarantee that governors will have the “final word” on legislation gives them leverage as they bargain to achieve their goals.
While the veto is typically viewed as a negative power – a way to keep something from happening rather than causing something to happen – governors can employ this “threat” to entice legislators to their Positions. Legislators do not wish to go to the immense work of formulating legislation only to have it end up dead on arrival at the governor’s desk. Legislators also do not wish the embarrassment of having their ideas met with the public disdain of the governor. The threat of the veto is often enough to change legislative behavior toward the governor’s desired goals.
Governors are wise to use the veto sparingly. A governor who vetoes a great deal of legislature is one who did not prevail earlier in the process. The frequent use of the veto might be interpreted by potential opponents of the governor as evidence of weakness rather than strength.
Governors rarely employ the veto power. Between 1945 and 1973, the average percent of measures vetoed across the states was around 5 percent. In the most recent year for which data are available (2002), governors vetoed somewhat fewer bills. The nation wide average was only 4 percent. Governors vetoed just over 1,000 bills and resolutions of the nearly 19,000 passed across the states in that year.
These national averages, however, mask quite a lot of state variation in 1973, for example, New York’s governor vetoed nearly 30 percent of the bills passed by the legislature, whereas neither Vermont’s nor Wyoming’s governors used the veto at all. In 2002, California’s governor Gray Davis used the veto more than any other governor. He vetoed 17 percent of measures passed by the legislature (432 vetoes). By contrast, five governors did not use the veto at all in 2002. Eight more governors vetoed less than 1 per cent of the bills presented by their legislatures. Governors of some states consistently cast more than an average number of vetoes. New York and California governors, for instance, have regularly vetoed a lot of bills. The largest number of vetoes is typically used in states with divided party control (sometimes called divided government), which means that the governor and a majority of the legislature do not share the same party (Wiggins 1980).
Overrides are even rarer than vetoes. In the middle of the twentieth century, it was very uncommon for a governor’s veto to be overridden by the legislature. Less than 2 percent of vetoes were overridden in 1945 and 1947. Before that, overrides were almost nonexistent: a veto by the governor was nearly always the final word on a bill. However, legislatures seem to have become somewhat more aggressive and more willing to go against their governors. In the 1970s, the percent of veto overrides rose to 6 percent. Override numbers fluctuated in the 1980s and 1990s between 2 and 8 percent. The per cent of vetoes overridden across the states was approximately 5 percent in 2002.
The executive branch is charged with administering the laws of the states, and as chief executive, the governor has the responsibility to oversee this process. As a political actor, the governor also hopes for the laws to be carried out in a certain way, in a direction that coincides with his or her policy positions. If the governors are going to be able to influence how the laws are administered, they need to have a say in appointing officers who are in charge of administering the laws.
Today, as the state bureaucracies have grown so large, the vast majority of the offices in the executive branch are held by people who are simply hired for their jobs through a merit hiring process. They are chosen due to their credentials rather than their political loyalty, and they often hold their jobs through the administrations of multiple governors. Consequently, career bureaucrats may not be particularly responsive to the political goals of the governor. The jobs of career bureaucrats, however, typically do not have much discretion associated with them, and their actions have little Political significance. These offices are appropriately relegated to the status of career bureaucrat rather than political appointee.
There are, however many officials in the state bureaucracy who do have policy-relevant authority. These officials also possess a significant amount of discretion, which makes their political beliefs relevant to the outcomes of state government. They are in charge of writing the rules and regulation that carry out the laws passed by the legislatures. These are the sorts of officials that advocates for executive authority believe the governor should have the power to appoint.
The appointment power is a vital tool for governors research shows that administrators who are appointed by the governor are more likely to respond to his or her political preferences. When agency heads are appointed by the governor they are more likely to share the goals and ideals of the chief executive. Since many actors (both inside and out side of government) are able to influence the choices made by the executive branch and many of these have their own motivations and policy goals, it is necessary for the governor to have the chance to make sure his or her people will be part of the process.
The presence of state officials who are not dependent on the governor for their jobs limits the ability of the governor to perform the chief executive role. Though reformers continually try to shorten the long ballot (and thus give the governor the power to appoint more high-level state positions), states still elect a good number of executive officials. In 2000, the fifty states combined still elected over 300 officials to their executive branches (in addition to the 50 governors).
The number of gubernatorial appointees is different from state to state, but in general, states have given the governors the chance to appoint more of the people they will be working with in the executive branch. One way to examine the appointment power of the governor is to count the number of key officials he or she is allowed to choose. These officials can be defined as those in charge of the six major functions of the states: corrections kindergarten through twelfth grade education, health, highways, public utilities and welfare. By this reckoning governors are moderately powerful. In most states, someone other than the governor appoints these officials but with the approval of the governor the legislature or both. Another way of assessing the importance of the governor’s appointment power is to look at how many executive officials besides the governor are elected. The best-case scenario for the governor would be election for only the governor and the lieutenant governor but this arrangement exists in only five states. The average number of executive branch elected officials across the states is about eight. North Dakota has the highest number—twelve.
Without the appointment power the governor's goals for the bureaucracy might essentially be ignored despite the chief executive role. Nevertheless, unlike the national government, no state gives its governor the power to appoint an entire executive team. Instead governors must work with (and perhaps sometimes compete with) a host of elected, appointed, and hired individuals who also have their own goals and sources of power in the state. Again, this lack of unanimity in the executive branch has both positive and negative features. It hampers the governor’s unilateral power, but it may ultimately be beneficial to the public because elected officials are not as indebted to the governor. Officials such as the attorney general and the auditor probably should be elected (as they are in most states) so that they can have the independence necessary to perform their jobs effectively.
As governors make choices regarding executive branch appointments, they may feel pulled by two competing goals. They may be torn between placing the best-qualified people in the position and choosing people on whose loyalty they can depend— people that they believe that they can control. This tension may create a dilemma for the governor. As Governor Dan Walker of Illinois observed, “The better the people you get, the more distance they place between themselves and you. They tend to adopt much more of that ‘we/them’ syndrome that can be disaster to government” (Dalton 1983, 94). This governor seems to assume that members of the executive branch do not share the goals of the governor, even when the governor placed them there. Such a situation makes for difficulty in working together and in simply communicating the needs of government, though information flow to the governor is of crucial importance.
This sentiment illustrates that simply appointing an official may not guarantee loyalty to a governor’s goals. The power to remove officials is an important resource that facilitates the positive effects of the appointment power. However, in most states, the governor’s power of removal is quite limited, unless the appointee in question has committed serious legal or ethical violations. Interested outside actors such as clientele groups who are supporters of agencies, legislators, and other bureaucrats often protest when governors attempt to remove key administrators. Further difficulties in the removal of officials derive from court decisions that protect public employees from being removed for “political reasons.” While the courts have provided governors leeway by allowing a balance between governmental effectiveness and individual rights (of employees), this lack of total control over the appointment of public administrators can dilute support of the governor’s ideals in the executive branch. It also illustrates a key difference between governors and the American president. The president has nearly total control over the removal of executive branch officials.
Another element that has historically been an important power of the governor and which is included in Schlesinger’s index of formal powers is called tenure potential. Tenure potential is not a power in the traditional sense—it is not a tool the governor can directly employ. However, Schlesinger’s idea was that power grows from the length of time the governor can hold the office. Governors who must leave office quickly will not fare as well in the legislature because legislators who disagree with the chief executive need not really take the governor seriously. They can just wait two years for a new governor with new ideas to come along.
Governors vary in how long their terms are and in how many times they are allowed (by law) to run for reelection. In the early years of the country, ten of the original thirteen states allowed their governors terms of only a single year (Beyle 1990), one state allowed a two-year term, and the other two set the term at three years. The constitutions often allowed these governors to seek reelection a number of times. As time passed, the length of time a governor might be allowed to serve in the office grew. Nevertheless, states have not completely relaxed their concerns about executives staying in office for too long. There was a general trend toward longer terms and greater opportunity to seek reelection for governors, but that trend seems to have hit a high point in the 1970s (see Table 2.1). Some states had actually shortened the potential years that governors could serve by the 1990s.
By the end of the 1980s, only three governors were limited to two-year terms. All of these governors could seek an unlimited number of future terms. However, a new change began to occur in a few states. In 1989, eighteen states allowed their governors a four-year term with no restraint on reelection (down one state from 1974). Twenty-six states set their governors’ tenure at two four-year terms, and three states set theirs at one four-year term with no consecutive reelection. Over the next few years, a significant shift toward somewhat shorter tenure continued.
This change occurred not because the states shortened the length of the term but be cause some states placed new limits on the number of terms a governor could serve. In 2003, the number of states allowing their governors to serve an unlimited number of four-year terms had declined again, down to only eight states. The largest group of states (thirty-eight) allowed two consecutive four-year terms. One allowed three consecutive four-year terms (Utah). One state continues to limit its governor to a single four-year term (Virginia). The New England states of Vermont and New Hampshire continue to restrict their governors to two-year terms but allow them the unlimited opportunity to seek reelection.
Unlike the U.S. president, governors in some states are allowed to serve additional terms after being out of office for a designated period of time. Various governors have taken advantage of this option, sitting out for the required time and running for the office again. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the governors who have returned to office after leaving due to term limits are controversial figures with very strong personalities. Big Jim Folsom of Alabama (1947—1951; 1955—1959), Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi (1916—1920; 1928—1932), and Earl Long of Louisiana (1939—1940; 1948—1952; 1956—1960) surely fit this description.
Tenure potential is most important for the governor’s role as chief legislator. The possibility of holding the office for a longer period strengthens the governors in various ways. Being in office longer makes governors more knowledgeable and better able to exercise the power of persuasion. It frees them up from the “perpetual campaign,” meaning that if the terms are longer, they can spend more time doing the job and less time seeking reelection. It also allows governors the opportunity to spend time gaining expertise while still having time left in office to put this expertise to work. Longer tenure should also increase the governors’ bargaining power by strengthening their position relative to state legislatures and their leaders, who are not so limited in their tenure potential in most states.
The power to craft the budget is critically important for the role of chief legislator. Influence over the budget can translate into significant influence over the policy direction of the state, since spending priorities ultimately equal policy priorities.
The budget is the spending plan for a state. Like most things in state government, it requires the governor and the legislature to work together. Governors in most states are in charge of preparing the budget and submitting it to the legislature. This “executive budget” gives governors the chance to identify where they would like to see increases or decreases in spending. It also centralizes all agency requests for funds under the governor’s control, which helps the governor because without the executive budget, agencies might go straight to the legislature to ask for funds and thereby circumvent the governor’s input as to state priorities. It is certainly possible that such end runs will occur even with the executive budget, but this would most certainly result in the absence of an executive budget.
Having an executive budget definitely gives the governor a significant opportunity to influence state spending. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that legislatures typically have unlimited power to change the budget the governor proposes. So while this power is very important for governors, it does not at all guarantee that their policy goals will be achieved or pursued at the level they desired. Research indicates that the budget remains an area in which both the governors and the legislatures exert a great deal of influence when they choose to do so. Once the budget is adopted, governors can wield unique influence. They have considerable authority for administering the budget. They are in charge of spending the money that puts the legislative programs into force, and this gives them additional influence even when the budgetary process did not go their way.
Other Formal Resources
In addition to the four powers identified by Schlesinger and included in his formal powers index, the modern governor’s office provides other tools to the chief executive. These other formal tools are the state of the state address and the power to reorganize the executive branch. They are important instruments for governors as they carry out their chief legislator and chief executive roles.
State of the State Addresses
State of the state addresses are most helpful to governors as chief legislators, especially in agenda setting. All governors are required to report on the state of their states. These speeches have come to be valued platforms for the governors, who use them to lay out their legislative goals.
Some issues are on the agenda of the states (and the governors) all of the time. Among these permanent agenda items are education, highways, health care, welfare, and law enforcement. In fact, these five issue areas account for nearly three-quarters of the budget of an average state. It is no surprise, then, that governors must always pay attention to problems in these areas. Other issues come and go from the agenda, almost in a cycle (Herzik 1991). For instance, tax reform seems to arise as a key issue in the states periodically, and then it recedes from public view. Finally, sometimes completely new problems arise. They burst onto the state scene and demand attention. Some will come along and remain on the agenda for years afterward, while others arise, are addressed, and then disappear. Newly discovered communicable diseases affecting the health of a state’s citizens might fit this category. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) are two examples. While concern about SARS seems to ebb and flow, AIDS has unfortunately been on the agenda of the states since the early 1980s. Advances in treatments for AIDS may cause the disease to receive somewhat less attention for a time. However, if the rates of infection begin to rise again, governors, especially in certain states, will again turn their attention to placing the control and eradication of AIDS on the state agendas.
In some ways, governors’ state of the state addresses are very individualized. In them, the governors often recognize family members and public officials to publicly express their gratitude. They reflect on and describe the positive accomplishments of their time as governor. They describe the state of the state, that is, the condition of its economy and industry. They also honor individuals who have made important contributions to the state. In addition to such reflection on the current conditions of the state, governors typically identify remaining problems and outline proposed solutions in hopes the legislatures will take them on. Governors normally limit their agendas to a few key items. But some governors do not follow this pattern. They instead offer a laundry list of issues for the legislature to consider. Usually, it seems that governors are better off to limit the number of items on their wish list because the attention span of legislatures is rather short and because legislators also have their own priorities to pursue (Ferguson and Barth 2002).
Topics addressed by governors are also predictable in certain regards. For example, states with common regional attachments share common problems. Because of these common problems, the priorities of governors within a region will be similar. Western governors often must focus attention on their states’ water supplies. Southern state governors might focus on the region wide problems in public education.
Party or ideological attachments also influence which issues governors choose to address. For instance, Republican governors may be more likely to address problems of crime and punishment. Other issues might span party and ideology divides, such as economic development. Yet even among the issues that cross party lines, party and ideological differences might arise in terms of the answers advocated by the governors.
Not only do governors often address similar public problems, they also tend to offer similar solutions to these problems. An examination of state of the state addresses in 1994 found that all but nine of the fifty governors discussed crime in them. Eleven of these governors advocated mandatory sentencing laws (often called “three strikes and you’re out” laws). Nineteen governors pointed to guns as a primary cause for crime and proposed some sort of restriction on the possession or sale of these weapons to try to address the dangers. Thirty-eight of the fifty governors discussed the state education system in their state of the state address. Governors across the states identified similar problems in education and remarkably similar solutions. Several governors talked about giving local schools more control. Thirty-two governors discussed the need to reform health care, especially health care programs for the poor and elderly. Similarities can be observed across the other major policy areas addressed by the governors (Ferguson 2003).
State of the state addresses, therefore, offers a critical opportunity for governors to set the legislative agenda for the states. Legislators look to these speeches for indications of the governors’ goals. However governors hope to do more through these speeches. They attempt to use them to convince the legislature not only that a certain problem needs to be addressed but also that their own solution is the best alternative. The state of the state speech seems somewhat less successful for governors in regard to this more specific goal of policy formation (Ferguson 2003).
Executive Branch Reorganization
The power to reorganize the bureaucracy, a power possessed by governors in half of the states, is most useful in terms of the chief executive role. This power allows governors to organize the people and offices of the executive branch in such a way that the bureaucracy is more responsive to political control. Organizational structures definitely can affect the flow of information, the choices that are offered to decision makers, and the decisions ultimately made by those responsible.
State bureaucracies typically developed in a rather haphazard manner. The executive branch in most states has grown gradually as agencies were created to address new problems. As a result, the responsibilities of agencies are often poorly defined, and multiple agencies sometimes share overlapping responsibilities. In addition, agencies that probably should be grouped together because of shared functional responsibilities often refuse to merge or cooperate with other related agencies. Because of all of these concerns, governors often hope to organize the bureaucracies so that they are more manageable.
However, reorganizing state executive agencies is not merely an administrative task. The choices involved are very politically charged. Administrative agencies affect many different groups, and each agency invariably favors some of the participants over others. Rearranging the structure may therefore increase the power of some groups over others. This outcome is precisely the goal of governors attempting to rearrange such agencies. Governors hope to appoint those favorable to their programs to head the departments in charge of administering those programs. Placing such supporters in these positions is critical for governors, who cannot possibly exercise constant supervision over these administrators.
Reformers long sought to give the governors this power so as to place them at the top of the state bureaucracy. When governors organize the state bureaucracy to suit their goals and preferences, they should also have greater influence over the decisions and actions of these bureaucracies. Since 1965, more than twenty states have significantly reorganized their bureaucracies. In more than half of the states, governors can initiate organizational changes that will take effect unless the legislature objects in a specified period of time. However, this power is not unlimited. Legislatures do have the ability to object, and they often decide to do so. Administrators and clientele groups outside of government that will be directly affected by the reorganization may also lobby the legislature to overturn the governor’s decisions. Even in the twenty-three states that have given their governors power to reorganize by executive order (subject to veto by one or both chambers of the legislature), the governors have rarely used this power. Instead, they tend to seek legislative approval for such dramatic changes, which means that governors must work very closely with legislators to succeed in the hard work of building coalitions to get their reorganization proposals passed.
Governors often hope to reorganize the state bureaucracy at the outset of their administrations. They believe that such organization can help them to get a handle on the apparatus of government and lead it in the desired direction. Moving early is smart be cause the beginning of a term is often when the governor is most successful with the legislature. Moving quickly might also minimize the ability of opponents to organize against the governor’s plan.
A quote from President Dwight Eisenhower sums up the importance of this role: “Organization cannot make a genius out of an incompetent…on the other hand, disorganization can scarcely fail to result in inefficiency and can easily lead to disaster” (quoted in Greensteth 1988, 83).
When talking about the power of the governor, it is natural to speak of the formal powers. These are powers that come with the office itself, either because the Constitution provides them to the governor or because the state has passed laws giving the governor such powers. Accordingly, observers have long talked about strong and weak governors and compared one state’s governors to others based on these powers. However, a host of other factors affect how powerful a governor will be. Many governors have managed to exert quite a lot of power even though they were serving in an office with very limited formal powers. How did they succeed in being powerful when the office was weak? They pulled power from sources outside the office itself. Since such resources do not come with the office, they are referred to as informal powers. Informal powers differ substantially from one governor to another, rather than from one state to the next. Some informal powers have to do with the person who holds the office. Each man or woman who becomes governor has certain knowledge, skills, and personality traits that will help in the performance of the job. These ideas about informal powers are some times harder for researchers to discuss because they are less concrete than formal powers. One cannot read the law or the constitution to determine how powerful the governor will be in an informal sense, Instead, one has to know more about the person in the office and the context or situation he or she is in to understand why some governors succeed without significant formal powers and, conversely, why some governors with substantial formal powers nevertheless fail.
Personal and Professional Characteristics of the Governor
Obviously, the people who hold the office of governor are individuals with strengths and weaknesses goals and aspirations. They have knowledge and skills and experiences that they can put to use in the governor’s office. Each of these factors may also affect which parts of the job the governor most enjoys and spends the most time on. They may also influence how successful the governor manages to be in his or her many endeavors.
Some governors truly love the legislative role. They enjoy the game of politics, the maneuvering, and negotiating with the legislatures. Others dislike this aspect of the job, preferring instead the managerial role or even the role as head of state. Governors who crave the excitement or the give-and-take of the legislative arena will spend more time and effort on that and probably achieve greater success. They may spend less time on other elements of the job. Having a particularly good personal relationship with the legislature might actually help the governor to succeed at being chief legislator. Being well liked, admired, and respected by state legislators might help a governor to succeed in the legislative arena. Similarly, some governors are more interested in being a manager of the state. This interest may lead to greater attention to this role and a willingness to invest the time and energy necessary to succeed in what is often the hardest part of the job. This dedication may lead to greater achievements for the governor.
For some politicians, arriving at the governor’s mansion is their ultimate goal. They may hope to serve a single term in the governor’s office or, more likely, to serve as many terms as the law allows. Others may hope to run for the U.S. Senate or for the presidency down the road. Such ambitions will have an effect on how a governor behaves in office. Governors with goals of seeking reelection or higher elective office might have reason to be more active in the pursuit of policy they believe important to their electorates. This attitude might also result in greater success for governors. Conversely, the ambition for seeking higher office may make governors wary of failure in the legislative arena, which could result in a lesser emphasis on policy formulation activities (though it may result in a greater emphasis on agenda setting).
Choices that governors make before or during their time in office might also help or hurt their chances for success. For example, when a governor is involved in scandals, he or she will probably not do as well in any of the roles of the office. His or her bargaining position with members of the legislature will likely be compromised. And members of legislatures might feel free to oppose scandal-ridden governors or even want to avoid being associated with them (Ferguson 2003).
Skill and Experience
Doing a good job across the many roles of the governorship is a difficult assignment, requiring a great deal of knowledge, skill, and perseverance. Nearly every governor approaching the job for the first time feels under-prepared. Governors must know a lot about a lot of things, and they have very little time to learn on the job. A governor who assumes office with a bigger bank of skills will be able to move into the job more quickly and easily.
For some, the governorship is the first elected position. That is not true for most governors, however. Instead, the majority have served in other elective offices and perhaps in private positions as well. This prior experience teaches them myriad different skills that will be of help in the governor’s office. Thus, being a legislator would help to develop knowledge about how government in the state works. So governors who were formerly in the state legislature probably know more about the workings of the lawmaking systems. Legislative experience may also mean that the governor still has some friends in the legislature, which would also help in the role as chief legislator. Some governors already have experience in the executive branch, perhaps having served previously as lieutenant governor or attorney general.
This experience does not mean that these governors know all there is to know when they are first elected, but it most likely does give them a leg up over those who go straight to the governor’s mansion. The skills and experience a governor brings to the office will surely impact his or her ability to do the job.
Personal traits may also be important. Some governors are exceptionally persuasive. Some are charismatic and likable. Some have very forceful personalities all of these facets of a governor’s personality can be used in doing the many jobs of the office.
Governors draw some sources of power from outside themselves and their office. Many observers think that being well liked by the public helps a governor in the many roles he or she plays. Popularity is especially important for the chief legislator and head of state roles because of the importance of the public (and the public’s desires) to these roles.
The popularity of governors always varies over time. A state’s citizens will feel more positive about their governor in certain periods and less so in others. Generally, popularity is highest just after election, and then it declines over time. Certain events or action may encourage the public to be more supportive of the governor, but many events also diminish a governor’s popularity. Unfortunately for the governors, they do not have much control over how popular they are: there are very few things they can do to influence how the public views them. However, they can certainly try to use their popularity to their advantage. It is not entirely clear what leads some governors to be more popular than others. Personality may have something to do with it. The state of the economy may as well. Social upheaval, such as events that occurred during the civil rights movement, probably leads to lower levels of popular support, while decisive action on the part of the governor probably improves his or her standing.
Having the support of the public is important for governors as they work in the legislative arena. Being unpopular can surely hurt a governor who is trying to negotiate with the legislature. This may be because legislators do not want to be associated with the policies of an unpopular governor. Low public approval of a governor gives legislators who want to oppose the governor a greater opening to do so. Even more serious for the governor, being unpopular may actually cause legislators to oppose his or her goals because they do not want to be associated with an unpopular governor. By contrast, popularity might rally the public in favor of a governor’s proposals. The people may be encouraged to contact their legislators on behalf of the governor, and this might in turn convince a legislator to support a governor’s goals.
Another way of looking at the importance of the relationship between the governor and the people is to ask whether the governor can claim a mandate from the public. Unlike popularity, which remains important throughout a governor’s term, mandates are only had immediately after an election. Governors claim that they campaigned to and were elected by the people in the entire state. Since the voters elected the governor, they are behind his or her goals. Further, if the election shows that the people are behind the governor, then the legislature should be, too—at least, this is the claim governors make. They often assert that they have a mandate from the people to pursue their priorities and that the legislature should follow suit.
None of the members of the legislature were elected by the whole state, so none of them can claim that the whole state is behind them. This fact of political life can be a potent source of informal power. However, there are many reasons to be skeptical about such a claim. When people vote for a candidate for governor (or for any official), they have many reasons for doing so. They may simply strongly dislike one candidate and wish to vote against that person. They may really like one or two of the ideas of the chosen candidate but dislike many others. Because of such factors, strictly speaking, there is no way to know whether the fact that a majority of voters chose one candidate means that they are also behind all of the ideas of that candidate. Nevertheless, governors attempt to convince the legislature and other state officials that such a statement of support for the governor is exactly the message the voters were sending in the election.
Governors who win their positions by large margins at the polls are more likely to convince members of the legislature they have a mandate from the people to go after their goals. Under these circumstances, legislators may feel that the public is in support of the governor’s agenda, a perception that might encourage the legislature to support the governor’s proposals as well.
Members of the legislature, of course, represent only a single district of typically a few thousand people, while the governor can claim the whole state as his or her “district.” This difference of constituency may make legislators vulnerable to governors’ claims of mandates. A governor who was not actually elected cannot claim a mandate. If a sitting governor dies in office, someone else must take over. In most states, the lieutenant governor steps into the post. Governors who succeed to the office after some particularly divisive event, such as the indictment or impeachment of the incumbent governor, will likely have a more difficult time than those succeeding due to the death of the incumbent. Governors in this latter situation may actually benefit from the goodwill of the people who are grieving over the loss of the elected governor.
The Governor and the Media
It goes without saying that the invention of new types of media has changed American life. The development of radio and then television and now the Internet (and who knows what tomorrow?) has had a very powerful effect on politics and government. The media, especially visual media such as television, tend to focus on stories that are easy to convey in short periods of time. Television news tends to shy away from covering legislatures, since the lawmaking process is so complicated. But a single figure, such as the president or the governor, is easier to examine and discuss.
The growth in television media has helped the chief executives (both the president and the governors) to rise to the center of public attention. For the governor, this is helpful in many different ways, especially within the chief legislator role. Media coverage gives the governor a way of communicating with the public and with other governmental actors. It also sends other less concrete messages to these observers. The media reinforce the idea that the governor is the state’s leader. This reinforcement feeds into the governor’s future attempts to lead. Looking like a leader on television helps the governor to be a leader in the state.
The media seem particularly preoccupied with the governor because he or she is a single actor who is easy to follow around and report about. Governors are also the topic of media attention because they serve an entire state. Though there are other officials in the states who are also elected statewide by the voters, these figures do not carry as much responsibility as the governor, and their jobs are less clearly related to the lives of most people in the state. So the voters tend to think of the governor as a pivotal leader, and the media in turn focus on the governor more than on any other state official.
Governors are very aware of the opportunity the media offer them in their efforts to reach the public and other government officials. In addition to reinforcing the image of the governor as a leader, the media may help them to send more specific messages. The message might be that some problem, such as poor educational performance in the public schools, is a major dilemma facing the state. Governors can use public speeches, press conferences, and interviews with specific reporters to get the word out about their key concerns. When a governor makes a speech or gives an interview, the public gets to hear directly from that individual. Also, the governor has the stage, so there are no other actors competing at that moment to get their ideas heard. In addition, no other actor has the access to the media that the governor has, and this gives the governor a great opportunity to put issues on the agenda.
Next, having directed the attention of the public (and other public officials) to a problem in the state, the governor will typically move to a specific proposal. The governor mentioned in the last paragraph who used the media to attract attention to students failing in the public schools may now want to convince the public that the way to fix that problem is to set stricter standards for teacher education. This step moves the process beyond merely identifying a problem: the governor is trying to define the solution as well. The media provide the governor with an outlet for these efforts.
When governors use the media, they are most likely to be targeting their message to the public. The governors hope that if the public is on their side, then the state legislature will be, too. If the governor can reach out to the voters and convince them, then the voters will (hopefully) contact and convince their legislators that the governor’s goals are right for the state and should be pursued. Clearly, the governor has the attention of the public more than any other state official, and this is largely due to media coverage. It is also quite likely that using the media helps the governor to set the agenda and encourage other state actors to look into problems that the governor identifies. But it is less likely that the media will stimulate the public to head to their Phones (or their computers) to contact their legislators. Relatively few voters contact their legislators in any case, and they are not all that likely to do so at the governor’s request. However, there may be times when the governor does succeed in motivating the public to assist in this way. If any state actor can encourage such a movement among the citizens, it would be the governor; given the unique access he or she has to the media.
Media exposure has broad implications for the governor. It helps the governor to exercise many of the other informal powers he or she possesses. For instance, media coverage is the mechanism that helps the governor to generate popular support, to get the attention of the legislature, and to remind other governmental actors of the governor’s goals. In fact, access to the media helps the governor pursue nearly all of the roles of the office.
Modern governors possess many formal powers, and they come to office with a variety of informal resources that they may also put to use in performing the multiple roles they play. A governor who skillfully employs the right combination of these resources can succeed in the office, but not all governors manage to do so. The powers of the office and the skills of the person holding it do not fully explain why some governors succeed and others fail. The presence of numerous other actors, both inside and outside of government, who have their own goals and responsibilities, also affects the ability of governors to succeed at their jobs. These features of the larger political environment are discussed in Chapter 5.
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