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The Social Security Act of 1935 created a federal-state program of unemployment insurance (UI) funded by employer payroll taxes and characterized by extensive state discretion over benefits and employer contributions. In the decades that followed, concerns about UI’s inadequacies led federal lawmakers to attempt repeatedly to replace it with a national system of unemployment insurance or, failing that, to establish national benefit standards. Nonetheless, the original federal-state arrangement persists to this day with only minor modifications. Upon the program’s creation, a powerful alliance of state officials and business groups developed a vested interest in the status quo and successfully resisted periodic reform efforts. These self-reinforcing feedback effects are especially noteworthy since state officials had not lobbied energetically for UI’s creation.
When President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into law on January 8, 2002, he was joined by a bipartisan group of officials that included liberal stalwarts Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and George Miller (D-CA) as well as conservatives like John Boehner (R-OH). This political diversity reflected the overwhelming support with which the measure had cleared both chambers of Congress. Republicans and Democrats alike hoped that NCLB would improve the American education system, leading to stronger academic performances by students of diverse backgrounds. This bipartisan enthusiasm dissipated remarkably quickly, however, and the effort to reauthorize NCLB eventually led to the passage of a law that was widely viewed as a repudiation of its central provisions.
Signed into law during a lame-duck session of the 96th Congress, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) established a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries that was dedicated to a trust fund for cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. Known colloquially as Superfund, CERCLA received strong bipartisan support in the Senate and in the House, partly due to a series of high-profile incidents at places like Love Canal in New York and Valley of the Drums in Kentucky. Since its adoption in 1980, however, Superfund has been the subject of considerable controversy, so much so that its dedicated taxes have lapsed twice and its operations came to a “virtual standstill for more than a year” (Patashnik 2000, 162). In addition to being politically unstable, Superfund has been characterized as ineffective, with one observer describing it as “notorious for fostering too much litigation and too little actual cleanup” (Babich 1995, 1520).
The first step in identifying the factors that explain why state officials’ reactions to national initiatives range from enthusiasm to indifference to antagonism is recognizing that public policies are not only the result of broader social and political processes; they also have the potential to reshape existing political dynamics. In particular, policy decisions made at one moment in time have the potential to influence political struggles years or even decades later, with implications for the policy’s long-term stability. These policy feedback effects take two forms. First, self-reinforcing processes can make a policy’s developmental trajectory difficult to reverse by hindering the adoption of previously plausible alternatives (Skocpol 1992; Weir 1992; Pierson 2004). Second, public policies can generate self-undermining dynamics that diminish rather than reinforce their own long-term viability (Jacobs and Weaver 2015; Oberlander and Weaver 2015; Weaver 2010).
When Congress created Medicaid under Title XIX of the Social Security Amendments of 1965, national lawmakers envisioned it as a safety net for only the poorest and most vulnerable citizens. They predicted that state officials would be measured and circumspect about participating in the new program, as they had been with previous health care programs for the poor, thereby limiting federal outlays. Upon the program’s inception, however, state officials “rudely jostled their way toward the Title XIX trough, to the increasing consternation of legislators and administrators in Washington” (Stevens and Stevens 2003, 81). The program’s chief architect, fiscally conservative House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills (D-AR), later called Medicaid the most expensive mistake of his career (Zelizer 1998, 262). He and other lawmakers began drafting legislation to scale back the program almost immediately, but state officials successfully fought off these and subsequent efforts at retrenchment. On several occasions the governors also lobbied for federal policy changes to greatly expand eligibility for the program.
In 2010, the Democratic Congress narrowly passed and President Barack Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) – the most significant expansion of health coverage since the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. In addition to mandating that individuals have qualifying health coverage or pay a tax penalty, the law imposed a host of regulations on insurance companies concerning the plans offered, premiums charged, and denial of coverage. Two additional provisions directly implicated the states. First, the ACA expanded eligibility for Medicaid (the subject of Chapter 4) to include all able-bodied adults under the age of 65 up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed into law the State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act, creating a program of general revenue sharing with state and local governments. At the signing ceremony, Nixon proclaimed that the new program would “give these hard-pressed governments the dollars they need so badly” and “the freedom they need to use those dollars as effectively as possible.” With virtually no strings attached, general revenue sharing offered state and local governments unprecedented spending discretion. And at the time of passage, its $30 billion price tag over the first five years made it the largest federal grant-in-aid ever enacted (Stephens and Wikstrom 2007, 39). Not surprisingly, state and local officials had lobbied vigorously for its passage; indeed, Nixon observed that its enactment would have been impossible without their support. Puzzlingly, however, state leaders hardly resisted when Congress discontinued the state portion of general revenue sharing eight years later.
The centerpiece of the Sheppard–Towner Act, which was signed into law in 1921, was a matching grant program that funded infant and maternity programs. Sparked both by substantive concerns about high rates of infant and maternal mortality in the United States and uncertainty about the political implications of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the Sheppard–Towner Act originally received strong bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. By the time the law came up for reauthorization a few years later, however, its political prospects were considerably more tenuous. It lacked a strong coalition of supporters, and a more powerful and mobilized group of opponents insisted that national government financial support for the services that it provided was no longer necessary. After a lengthy congressional debate, a “compromise” was reached that extended the Sheppard–Towner Act for two years but automatically repealed it on June 30, 1929, less than eight years after its adoption.
After the November 2016 elections gave the Republican Party unified control over the presidency and both chambers of Congress, its longstanding goal of “repealing and replacing” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) seemed to be well within its reach. The House of Representatives voted to eradicate the central domestic policy accomplishment of the Obama administration in early May 2017, at which point all eyes turned to the Senate. Since Senate Republicans were using the reconciliation process to circumvent the possibility of a Democratic filibuster and held only a 52–48 majority in the chamber, media attention focused on the handful of GOP senators viewed as capable of bucking the party line.
This book began by asking why state officials greet national policy initiatives with reactions that range from enthusiasm to indifference to hostility. Combining the insights of existing scholarship on American political development (APD), federalism, and policy feedback, it devised an analytical framework that accounts for these varied responses on the basis of policy design, timing, and the interaction of these two factors. The financial generosity of a policy, the level of administrative discretion it offers state officials, the duration for which it is authorized, and its potential to build or preserve a protective coalition all affect its developmental trajectory. Its trajectory is also shaped by the political, economic, and administrative context in which the policy is created and how those environmental conditions interact with its design. These factors help determine whether the policy will generate self-reinforcing, self-undermining, or negligible feedback effects among state government elites. The case studies presented in previous chapters amend the standard story about state officials’ preferences, open up several potential avenues for future research on intergovernmental relations and policy feedback, offer lessons for government officials who want to design durable public policies, and illuminate broader trends in American governance.