Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Presidential Policymaking at the State Level

Saturday, November 14, 2015 : 10:35 AM
President's Room (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Elizabeth K. Mann, University of Michigan
To date, the Obama administration has approved waivers for 43 states and the District of Columbia from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). These waivers grant states flexibility from key provisions of President George W. Bush’s signature education law, and in exchange, states must adhere to central components of President Obama’s proposal to revise NCLB. Although this policymaking vehicle may seem unconventional, President Obama is far from the first to use waivers. Since the Reagan administration, presidents have strategically granted waivers from federal welfare, Medicaid, and secondary education laws to allow states to experiment with new policy implementation strategies. Presidents often invite waiver proposals and specify what types of innovation they favor. Further, each enjoys review and approval authority over waivers, providing the president with extensive influence over the experimental policies implemented through waivers. However, we have yet to systematically explore the conditions under which presidents grant waivers, leaving us with an incomplete understanding of a policymaking tool that has enabled substantial changes in healthcare, welfare, and education policies. To address this gap, I use an original dataset of waivers in welfare, Medicaid, and secondary education from 1984 to 2012 to assess which national and state-level factors explain the variation in approved waivers. Analysis of this dataset allows for more general conclusions about waivers as policy tools than single-issue studies.

I argue that presidents use waivers to implement their preferred reforms at the state level when they are unable to achieve their policy goals through legislation. First, I test the claim that presidents grant more waivers as their political capital declines, leaving them without sufficient leverage in Congress. I find support for this view; when the president’s political capital is lower, measured by his average annual approval rating, he grants more waivers per state-year. Second, I argue that while the waiver process invokes relatively few constraints from Congress and the federal bureaucracy compared to the legislative process, governors impose a crucial constraint on the president’s ability to use waivers. Consequently I focus on how national and state factors interact to influence the president’s use of waivers. Specifically, I hypothesize that the president grants more waivers as his ideological distance from the pivotal member of Congress increases, provided that he can rely on governors in his party to implement his preferred reforms. The data also support this claim; the president grants more waivers when he is “farther” from Congress, as long as the percent of governors in his party is high enough to guarantee cooperation from chief executives across the country. Overall, these results suggest that we should interpret waivers not only as products of state-level innovation, but also as valuable policy tools used by the president to pursue his goals when Congress stalls his reform agenda.

Full Paper: