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On January 4, 1993, Utah celebrated its ninety-seventh anniversary of statehood, and I was sworn in as the state’s fourteenth governor. My first-ever inaugural address was suffused with elation and promise, and it included a brief observation about a more esoteric subject—federalism, the power balance and relationship between the national government and the states.

“The fundamental nature of our central government is changing,” I said. “Instead of performing limited responsibilities delegated to it by sovereign states, the federal government has reversed the roles and become all-powerful, mandating to the states.” 

While I did not have a specific plan in mind at the time on how to reset the balance, I voiced a commitment to try, saying the governors of the nation “will ultimately need to take a historic stand to demand discipline, sanity, and a better balance in the federal system. I intend to be part of that effort.”

From that point on, the commitment to strengthen the role of states was a constant theme during my service as governor, elevated to major prominence for a time by a near astrological-like alignment of national and state political developments in the mid-1990s. A growing antipathy toward Washington, D.C., and a political shakeup in 1994 catapulted statehouses and state sovereignty onto the national stage and repurposed federalism in new ways, including a Conference of States, which originated in my administration; a reform of the welfare system; and a rebranding of federalism under a more trendy catchphrase: “devolution.”

I played a significant role in much of it and led the parade on occasion as federalism coursed through state and national policymaking from 1994 through about 1999. Did I succeed in the ultimate aim of permanently elevating federalism and strengthening the role of states? Not in any macro sense. The federal government continues to expand in reach and at a faster rate than our national economy while state governments become increasingly subordinate. 

However, there was an exception—the administration of welfare programs in the United States. There, I made a difference in the reforms that prevailed. Likewise, I know with certainty that my voice was heard, and that I honored the commitment made in my inaugural address. This chapter tells the story of a somewhat quixotic pursuit that did have a positive outcome. And it begins with the nation’s founders.

Origins of Federalism

Politics and governance are combative. Most public policy decisions involve debate, conflict, opposing sides, and tactical skirmishing that play out over three basic, interdependent questions: Who matters, who pays, and who decides? 

Governments at every level struggle to answer these questions. The American Revolution erupted in large measure from dissatisfaction over the way the British monarch answered those same three questions. It turns out, the thirteen original colonies disliked taxes imposed by a king an ocean away and went to war to break free of the crown and govern themselves. However, the complexity of who matters, who pays, and who decides did not come easy to the new, independent nation that emerged.

The bitter experience of having been ruled by a despot was so strong there was little interest in being subjected to a powerful central government, Consequently, the founders’ first attempt to form a national government in 1781 resulted in the anemic Articles of Confederation, which gave the new nation a name—the United States of America—but not much more. 

Two competing philosophies and factions squared off over how to fix the document’s deficiencies and establish a government. One group—the federalists—wanted a strong federal government. The second group, anti-federalists, advocated a much weaker national government, preferring nearly all power to reside with the states.

“The people of this state should expect their governor to be a warrior in the fight to restore balance to the role of Washington.”

The United States Constitution superseded the Articles of Confederation and reconciled the divergent points of view by carefully dividing responsibilities between states and the national government. Federalism, as both the separation of powers between the state and federal government and as a system of checks and balances, was an entirely new concept at the time. The primary means for resolving the “who decides” question was a list of enumerated powers delegated to the national government. The Constitution, as approved in 1787, set forth twenty-seven specific powers where the federal government is supreme. State power was formalized more explicitly four years later in the Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which proclaimed: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Those powers, according to founder and Bill of Rights originator James Madison, “are numerous and indefinite.” 

Adoption of the Constitution did not completely resolve the matter of who decides. Federalism remains a continual source of contention between different branches and levels of government and is one of the core ideological divisions in American politics to this day. 

My View of Federalism 

Over time the basic terminology associated with federalism has become inverted. The word “federalism” has come to be defined more as a system where states collectively wield influence over the national government. And the original “anti-federalist” founders such as Madison and Alexander Hamilton now would be considered “federalists.” It seems backwards to describe a system with less centralized power as a federalist system, but rather than buck that trend, I have adapted. I am an advocate for federalist forms of government, where states and the national government have co-equal respective joint roles and operate within that framework of balance.

Having served three terms as governor of Utah and two terms as a member of the president’s cabinet at the federal level, I continue to believe most functions of government should remain at the state and local level. However, my federal service reinforced the importance of having a strong national government—exercising all of its enumerated powers and those no state could accomplish on its own. A national government holds states accountable, incentivizes improvements beneficial to the nation as a whole, preserves the rights of minorities, and drives equality. My core conviction, though, is that the federal government has become too expansive in what it prescribes and seeks to control through various means—and states must be the counterbalance to that overreach. The founders were correct in their check-and-balance establishment of a strong central government, and were right, too, that an overpowering federal government poses inherent dangers to the vibrancy of a nation. Their wisdom has been borne out by time. 

States themselves contributed to the shift toward federalization by neglecting their responsibility. As they retreated, institutions of the federal government have naturally stepped into the vacuum. During the mid-twentieth century, southern states used a doctrine of “states’ rights” to practice and defend racial discrimination. This sin was not just a blight on humanity, it also diminished the idea of state primacy, making it morally uncomfortable. State leaders became reluctant to even defend it. They ceded more and more of their sovereignty over time, becoming apathetic in their constitutional duty to defend the people against encroachment of the national government. 

While people disagree on the question of how much government they want in their lives, there is less dispute that local government is more responsive and accountable than distant government—public opinion polls clearly demonstrate this. By nature, national governments become remote and disconnected from conditions on the ground. They also become hyper-partisan, focused on control more than problem-solving. Despite some conspicuous failures, states and local governments are more responsive and accountable because they are closer to the American people. 

Nonetheless, people mostly picture the federal government when they discuss politics, due in large part to the nature of modern communication—the speed and global reach of the internet—and the economic realities of the state-federal relationship, primarily the federal government’s capacity to raise and distribute tax dollars and co-opt the states into voluntarily playing a subordinate role. 

All of this has changed the nature of community and the way in which society is governed. Because of all these societal shifts, coupled with the fact that there are few constitutional tools available to state governments to claw influence back, states have atrophied in their influence, and the slide toward an over-deployed national government continues to gain momentum. 

When I stood in the Utah State Capitol for my inaugural address, I was responding to those very fundamental instincts about government control over the lives of citizens. I believed that states were meant to be a surrogate for the people in limiting the size and power of national governments. I felt there was a need for a rebalancing. And with state power temporarily bestowed upon me, I committed to help reawaken states as guardians against an unconstrained national government.

Becoming a Federalist 

Reflecting now, I find it peculiar that I would feel so strongly about federalism. I don’t tend to be an ideologue. But early in my political career I came to appreciate how elegantly the founders used human nature as a means of protection. It is often described as pitting “ambition against ambition;” the founders knew that human beings naturally seek power and control, so they concluded the most reliable way to control the human appetite for power was to juxtapose power with power. 

I have often described this as “mother’s rules,” referencing the way my mother, Anne, resolved differences among my five brothers and me over the pressing matter of dessert. Mom would say to one son, “You cut the pie,” and to then to the other, “You choose the first piece.” The son with the knife would carefully carve out equitable pieces, knowing the first brother to choose would take the largest piece. The elegance of this self-enforcing set of rules produces near equality. The founders understood mothers’ rules and believed states would “jealously guard their power.” In doing so, they would prevent the federal government from overstepping. That was assuming, however, that states would remain strong entities. 

Like any other American student, I was taught the basics of checks and balances in government, but never really drilled down on the concept of federalism until I became a candidate for office. I started reading biographies of the founders, and then read accounts of the constitutional convention, including Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen. All of these books resonated with me due to a number of practical personal experiences that underscored the wisdom of the founders’ solutions, those experiences further cementing the founders’ solutions in my mind.

For example, prior to running for governor, most of my business career had been spent in Leavitt Group, our family insurance business. We owned a majority interest in dozens of insurance agencies and brokerages around the United States. In each business, there was a local partner who owned a minority interest in the business. Usually, the Leavitt organization owned sixty percent and the local partner owned forty percent of the shares. Our sixty percent ownership gave us the capacity to exercise control if required. 

However, I learned quickly that there were two kinds of control: shareholder control and client control. Leavitt Group had the shareholder control, but the local partner had relationships of trust with the clients, or client control. If either party in the business relationship would have had both voting control and client control, they would have been able to act unilaterally. But since each party had a version of control, both had an incentive to treat the other with respect. Through that balance I gained respect for the importance of equally distributed power in a partnership—even if one party had what they assumed to be “supreme” power. 

Living in the American west, I also had experienced and witnessed the impact of an overreaching federal government in various ways. Candidly, as I began campaigning, I was routinely confronted by frustrated citizens who were feeling the effects of what to them felt like an unchecked federal government. This was particularly true in rural Utah, where residents were surrounded by U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands and depended on public lands for mining, grazing, recreation, and tourism. 

In the spring of 1992, Dr. Tony Morgan and his wife, Mary Ann, lived just one street over from Jackie and me in Salt Lake City. Our lives overlapped in multiple ways: We went to the same neighborhood church; I served on the Utah Board of Regents, and Tony was an academic vice president at the University of Utah, with a PhD background in educational administration and political science. During the early stages of my first campaign, as couples we had dinner together. One evening, I began to talk about federalism and my growing awareness of its functional importance. Tony, after hearing me out, asked, “Have you read The Federalist Papers?” I responded that I hadn’t read them and wasn’t sure what they were. Tony explained that in the late 1780s, a series of papers written by proponents of the newly proposed Constitution had been published as the intellectual underpinning of the argument for ratification. Though Tony made the point in the kindest of ways, I realized my lack of awareness was a bit like a person interested in religion having just a fleeting notion of the Bible.

The fundamental nature of our central government is changing.”

I have since read The Federalist Papers and have reread some of the essays many times. The experience deepened my understanding and the depth of my feelings about the subject. The story is another indication that I came to my belief in federalism in the most practical of ways—as a potent and raw political issue. 

Touching a Nerve 

Part of the ritual of being nominated as a candidate by a political party is attendance at county and state political conventions, where a candidate comes face-to-face with voters. In the march through Utah’s twenty-nine county Republican conventions, like other candidates I tended to give a short stump speech. I emphasized the major themes of my message—quality jobs, quality education, and quality of life—and spoke of the support I had from notable Utahns. At first, during the first several conventions, my message felt flat and undifferentiated from the others. Intuitively, I knew I needed something that would, as my campaign messaging advisor Chuck Sellier would say, “resonate in a guttural way.” 

One day, in a high school auditorium in Kane County, I went off script and began to talk about the nation’s founders and their fear that the national government would grow too powerful. I spoke of the key role the founders entrusted to the states—to represent the people by holding the national government accountable, jealously and unflinchingly. As I said then, “The people of this state should expect their governor to be a warrior in the fight to restore balance to the role of Washington.” 

Almost instantly I realized I had touched a sensitive nerve. Heads began to nod, people clapped at lines I didn’t intend to be applause lines, and I heard ordinary people respond with words like, “You’re damned right!” The next day I tried the same thing at another convention. Other candidates traveling from convention to convention along with me began to comment on the reaction. 

Was this a rural reaction? I wondered. I began to incorporate the message into my speeches in urban areas. Although urban voters expressed their worries about the expansion of federal power and lack of confidence in government differently than those in rural areas, the energy and sentiment were the same. I began to feel not just the political rightness of the position but also the policy importance. By the time I was elected, my knowledge of the subject and its history had begun to mature. Likewise, I had begun to feel a sense of mission. 

A Restive Mood 

The acceptance of my federalism message was in large measure part of a general discontent being felt by the American people. Having achieved the Republican nomination, in the general election I was in a three-way race with Democrat candidate Stewart Hanson and Independent candidate Merrill Cook. Similarly, the presidential election that year featured three candidates: Republican President George H. W. Bush, third-party Independent candidate Ross Perot, and Democrat Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Ultimately, the independent candidate in my race—Merrill Cook—won thirty-two percent of the vote. Nationally, the Independent candidate Perot, while not winning any states outright, received nearly twenty million votes. It was all part of an anti-Washington message that reverberated strongly enough to upset the normal political equilibrium. The national debt was rising, employment was weak, and people were feeling ignored by Washington. 

The ultimate winner of the presidency, Bill Clinton, was a small state governor who had overcome personal scandals to beat a host of Democrat establishment figures and secure his party’s nomination. Bush had been challenged from his political right but still was nominated. The atmosphere was simply laden with discontent aimed at Washington, D.C. President Bush had been riding a formidable favorable rating midway through his term in office only to see it vanish when he pushed forward a tax increase after promising not to. Clinton was a charismatic policy whiz who related to voters in an easygoing, personal way. 

Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States on November 3, 1992, the same day I was elected governor of Utah. It was the starting point of a journey for both of us, and it was clear that federalism issues would play a role going forward. The 1992 election had other illustrations of a deeper discontent among voters. Even though Clinton was elected president, his party lost nine seats in the House of Representatives. This had to be viewed as a rejection of Washington, D.C. 

Deep discontent had also been simmering on the Republican side of the U.S. House. A growing appetite for change was led in large measure by Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who served as minority whip and also led the Conservative Opportunity Society, a group of insurgent Republican members who held small-government views. This is an important part of the story because the cause they were riding and promoting was the same populist anti-federal sentiment I could feel in myself and among the electorate that had just elected me. 

People were discontented with their government. Democrats held control not just of Congress and the presidency, but of thirty-two of the fifty governorships in 1992. Additionally, state legislatures across the country were mostly under Democrat control. Change was about to break out, and to me it felt like a perfect moment for a rekindling of federalism. 

Reigniting Federalism 

Like any new governor, I devoted my first year in office to building a team, establishing a relationship with the Utah legislature, and laying the groundwork to fulfill the commitments I made during the campaign. However, once the 1994 legislative session ended, I was able to engage more with the various governors’ organizations. As I attended conferences involving governors from other states, I gently measured my colleagues’ interest in federalism and their appetite to participate in shaping an initiative to boost the profile of states. 

Governors were collectively feeling the burden of unfunded mandates, a device used by Congress with alarming frequency. It was the practice of using federal laws to coerce states into spending money in very specific ways. Interestingly, the issue of unfunded mandates had also begun to capture the attention of the media and the public. Better yet, both Republican and Democrat governors were offended by the practice, and it seemed poised to break through as an issue that could galvanize state opposition. Republicans clearly had more sympathy for the cause than Democrat governors who, while opposed to federal mandates imposed upon their states, had little interest in bucking a Democrat president and a Democrat-controlled Congress. 

“This is going great, the president thinks like a governor and he’s agreeing with us!”

There was hope among governors that President Clinton, himself a governor for nearly twelve years, would understand our frustration and be our ally. However, it quickly became clear that it was not the president imposing these mandates but Congress and a federal system that saw mandates as a means of getting its way on policy without having to take economic responsibility for payment. 

Shortly after his inauguration, President Clinton announced the formation of a task force headed by First Lady Hillary Clinton with the objective of designing a universal health insurance system. It was instantly controversial. Through the National Governors Association (NGA), I had already begun to engage heavily on the health care issue. 

In the spring of 1994, I visited the White House as part of an NGA task force on health care. The meeting took place in the Oval Office. I sat on a sofa to Clinton’s right, while president’s staff sat on chairs in various places around the room. The governors were making a case that health care is a state responsibility and that federally mandated regulations stifled innovation. The president was in governor mode, agreeing and joining in with examples from his days as governor. I thought, “This is going great, the president thinks like a governor and he’s agreeing with us!” 

I glanced down at the staff and noticed Clinton’s main health care advisor, Chris Jennings (who later became a friend of mine). Chris had his arms folded in front of him. He was staring at the carpet, shaking his head in total disapproval. I realized two things at that moment: Democrats do not view Medicaid the way Republicans do. They don’t see the federal government as an equal partner with states; to them, the federal government pays more than half the cost, giving them the right to call the tune. We were not going to get the answer we wanted, no matter how pleasant the former governor of Arkansas was to us. 

“We need to organize some kind of gathering or conference of states to reassert state power and demonstrate unified resolve.”

The second thing I learned was that presidencies are institutions, and that there are many people who contribute to a presidential administration’s philosophy. Moreover, it is a heavy lift for most presidents to totally depart from the ideological moorings of their political party. The Democrat Party’s view is that states can’t be trusted to do the right thing, and the federal government’s purpose is to watch over and ensure that states do their job. Moving power back to the states was going to be complicated, and it would require structural change. 

Walking down an airport concourse later that day to catch a flight home, I called LaVarr Webb, who served as my deputy for policy and had become my intellectual partner on federalism. I told him about the Oval Office meeting and vented my frustration on the fruitlessness of the process. “Look, nothing is going to happen here,” I said. “We’ve got to do something.” States were standing on the outside, waving their collective hands to get the attention of Congress and the president, to no avail. I told LaVarr about an idea I had been contemplating. “We need to organize some kind of gathering or conference of states to reassert state power and demonstrate unified resolve,” I said. Our conversation that day shaped the framework for what would become my Conference of the States effort. 

Health care was just one of the galvanizing issues. To be fair, advocates for federal control of health care don’t need enumerated powers. Most of the state-federal interactions on health care revolve around Medicaid, and states essentially surrender primacy in this arena as a contractual matter. Medicaid, welfare, most environmental actions, and education are similarly modeled as partnerships and controlled by contracts. The federal government agrees to contribute a lot of money to a program and states agree to accept the money and the conditions attached to it under the contract. For its part, the state manages the program according to guidelines and contributes its funding match using state tax dollars. Theoretically, a state could refuse to participate in these programs, but doing so would foreclose the federal matching dollars, and political forces would not let that happen in most cases. 

That die was cast decades ago. The federal government was never given authority over health care as one of its enumerated powers, but it took on the role, bolstering the prevailing view of federal power as “supreme” when Medicaid and Medicare were created and approved as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” expansion into entitlements in 1965. The expansion was challenged in the courts on constitutional grounds but was successfully defended on the theory that the federal government has a duty to look after the “general welfare” of its citizens. 

States started giving away their power long before they traded it for money. The best tool states were given in the Constitution was the method by which the U.S. Senate was elected. Until 1913, senators were elected by state legislatures. This gave states great leverage to drive change and influence policy. Then came passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, which changed the election of senators to popular vote. Interestingly, it was the states that demanded the change, and for legitimate reasons, but the move left them toothless. Now, the states have very few viable ways to counter federal encroachment. Really, they have only one tool now: the ability to call a constitutional convention. It requires seventy-five percent—thirty-eight states—to agree, and it has never happened before.

A Conference of the States

The Conference of the States idea that took shape in my mind in the summer of 1994 was a new approach. Others had talked about various ideas for decades. For example, the Constitution can only be amended if Congress, by a two-thirds vote, approves and sends an amendment to the states for ratification. In turn, ratification requires seventy-five percent of the state legislatures to agree. But what if the reverse of that could also be true? What about two-thirds of the states proposing an amendment, which could then be ratified by Congress with a seventy-five percent vote?

LaVarr and I pondered that and concluded that the process of discussing various state-empowerment proposals was an important part of generating buy-in with the public. Therefore, rather than starting with a set of specific proposals, we set about to design a process that the states could use to create pressure for action. States needed a more formal way to register and demonstrate their discontent. They needed to be able compel change in a way that was short of calling for a constitutional convention, but strong enough to be taken seriously.

We envisioned the Conference of the States as a process leading to a physical gathering, where formal delegations of elected state legislative leaders and governors would assemble. The meeting would be called when three-fourths of the states had passed resolutions expressly calling for a 

Conference of the States. At the conference, participating states would produce a document, or “States Petition,” which would list state grievances and propose solutions. There is no precedent for such a process, but it was a logical—and very American—way to proceed and create a formalized document for redress.

Our theory was that if two-thirds of the states looked like they were going to meet, the others would want to be there. Further, we believed that such a gathering would garner a huge amount of attention and focus a bright light on state grievances. Finally, while the Conference of the States would not be a constitutional convention, it would remind the federal government that states collectively do have that power. Toward that end, our threshold requiring that two-thirds of the states authorize delegations was intentionally the same as the number of states constitutionally required to call a constitutional convention. 

There was also a practical political component to our discussion. We wanted the first Conference of the States to land in the middle of the 1996 presidential campaign. In that environment, we believed the effort would help impress upon American voters that the checks and balances between states and the federal government were as important as those between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

Let’s acknowledge, this was big thinking. Perhaps it was unrealistic. Truthfully, where it would go from there, we weren’t sure. But we determined to begin trafficking the idea to see if there was a constituency among states for such a strategy. 

We knew any endeavor of this type had to be totally bipartisan; therefore, I needed a Democrat governor as a partner. My first choice was Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who had been elected in 1990. Like me, he had never held elective office before being elected governor. He was a lawyer by profession and had served a public role as his state’s insurance commissioner. Despite our party differences, we saw the world in very similar ways, and Ben liked the idea of the conference. He agreed to be my Democrat counterpart, and by the late spring of 1994, Ben Nelson and I had agreed upon a plan to pursue the Conference of the States. 

Our strategy was to build a partnership with five organizations that represented state elected officials in the United States. This included the National Governors Association (NGA); the Council of State Governments (CSG); the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL); the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC); and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation (SLLF). Once we had secured the support and involvement of these organizations, we could design a formal process to organize a Conference of the States. 

Each of these five national groups, while distinctly separate, have similar functions and patterns of operation. They have no formal status within American governance, but they have a useful purpose. Each is a 501(c)(3) organization, created to serve the education needs of a segment of public officials. The NGA’s membership includes most of the state governors. It is likely the most influential of the groups simply because of its constituency of state chief executives. The NCSL and ALEC both serve legislators from the fifty states. The SLLF serves only leaders of legislative bodies—house speakers, senate presidents, pro tempore leaders, and majority and minority leaders. The CSG represents both governors and state legislators and acts as a management organization for various other state officials such as treasurers, lieutenant governors, auditors, and the like. Each of the five organizations is supported by a combination of membership fees paid by state governments and corporate sponsorships. 

Each of the groups requires a bipartisan approach in operations and in leadership, which alternates back and forth between political parties. Naturally, there is some competition among the organizations and a bit of ideological flavoring between them. For example, among legislative organizations, NCSL tends to be more mainstream; ALEC is more conservative. Each of the organizations is a political microorganism unto itself with geographic rivalries, ideological differences, and egos playing out. Meetings of the organizations are educational in focus, but each has a policy agenda where they adopt positions and propose legislative solutions to problems faced by respective member states. It was the policy component of each organization that we looked to engage. 

Governor Nelson and I hoped that state legislators who belonged to these groups, despite their political and geographic differences, would share our frustration with the overreach of the federal government. We hoped they would see the Conference of the States as a serious and compelling way to reclaim and reassert their rights as state officials to stand up to the federal government. We sensed they would jump on board, being as fatigued as governors were of the constant budget pressure from unfunded federal mandates—and as disgusted by increasing manifestations of federal arrogance. Our hunch was right.

Strong Support

One at a time we began to engage with the leadership of our five potential allies. Each started with a call to their officers and executive directors. Those conversations led to invitations to speak at their board of directors or national meetings and conferences. There was instant receptiveness to our message and the idea of creating a more formal way for states to exert influence. Leadership within each organization helped guide the idea of supporting the Conference of the States through their formal policy processes. 

The National Conference of State Legislators is a good example of how this worked. On April 13, 1994, I was introduced by a Utah legislator, Brent Haymond, to Bill Pound, executive director of the NCSL, headquartered in Denver, Colorado. Bill Pound knew his members were agitated about an overreaching federal government and believed they would respond. He invited me to speak a few weeks later at a meeting in Delaware, where the NCSL’s policy committee was meeting to prepare for the group’s national meeting later in the summer. 

On May 4, 1994, I flew to Delaware and spoke for about an hour, answering questions and challenging the committee to rise to the occasion as state leaders. I laid out our vision and asked for their support, both as an organization and within their respective states. There was palpable energy, and the meeting was a profound success. I left with an invitation to address the full NCSL two months later at their annual meeting in New Orleans in July. 

The NCSL convention was held at the New Orleans Conference Center. More than a thousand of the nation’s seven thousand state legislators attended, representing nearly all of the states. It was an ideal opportunity to create a foothold with the Conference of the States message. The meeting went well, and we left with a sense of strong support.

Ben Nelson and I worked to get support through the National Governors Association at its own July annual meeting. Next, I spoke in Tampa, Florida, on August 5, 1994, at the ALEC national meeting. Daniel Sprague, executive director of the Council of State Governments, became deeply involved. While we did not gain formal approval of the CSG until their December 4, 1994, conference, we knew it was going to happen. Each of these organizations produced a formal policy position of support and prioritization as an issue. And the combined weight of the five was a powerful force multiplier, bringing legitimacy with state legislators and connections in every state, plus staff resources at the national level. I’m not sure these organizations had ever worked together on an issue like this before, nor have they since. 

On the strength of these approvals, we scheduled a critical meeting for December 8 in Washington, D.C., to unite all five organizations right after the 1994 election. We were on track, making exponential progress and poised to launch with, hopefully, some positive gains after the election. And then an electoral landslide struck, changing the landscape in a momentous and totally unexpected way. 

Key Positions at the Right Time 

Up to this point we had been driving the issue forward from the states, looking to attain national critical mass, state by state, with the help of the five national organizations that advocate for states and state issues. 

In addition to the National Governors Association, I was a member of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and the Western Governors’ Association (WGA). In fact, I was vice chair of both, about to become chairman of both. This was partly strategic, a little bit serendipitous. LaVarr Webb and I had earlier determined it would be useful to our federalism purposes if I held leadership posts in both. It would create opportunities to build relationships with other governors, and both roles had travel budgets and staff that we could engage in our effort. 

The RGA is a political organization primarily organized to help elect Republican governors. I became chairman at the group’s national conference in November 1994, right after the midterm elections. This same year, I also was appointed to a seat on the Executive Committee of the National Governors Association. 

The decision to take on the leadership role at RGA in particular was providential in my federalism story—in ways that I could not have anticipated. I had assumed it would be helpful by allowing me to develop relationships with other governors, and the opportunity cost would be having to spend some amount of time fundraising and distributing money. I viewed it as a political role because that’s all it had ever been. I’m pretty sure I got the job because there were only eighteen Republican governors at the time—the lowest number in memory—and several of those were up for reelection or leaving office. In other words, there wasn’t a lot of competition. 

For the annual meeting of RGA in November 1994, another opportunity was placed in my hands. It was always the prerogative of the chair to choose the location and organize the agenda. However, that year’s chair, whom I would shortly be succeeding, was Governor John McKernan of Maine. He was leaving office and not all that interested in the upcoming conference, so I volunteered to assume that duty, too. This allowed me to theme the event around federalism and to symbolically hold it in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, which had been the political center of democracy before and after the American Revolution. Many historians and scholars consider Williamsburg to be the birthplace of the ideas that forged the Constitution. 

Leading up to those fall dates, my hope was that we would win some additional governors races to add to our anemic eighteen. Even then, I expected that the meeting would be a relatively quiet affair where I could build support among the new governors for my federalism efforts and the Conference of the States. I could not have been more wrong. Nor could I have predicted the political earthquake that would reshape the federalism playing field and propel multiple issues to the forefront, crowding the Conference of States momentum and focusing my own attention onto parallel tracks.

The 1994 Election and a Profound Shift

In 1992, Newt Gingrich, a Republican congressman from Georgia, became the minority whip in the House of Representatives. He led a group of firebrand younger members who began tapping into the anti-federal sentiment that was already brewing in the United States. They effectively nationalized the 1994 congressional races by formulating a “Contract with America.” The document specified eight categories of reform pledged if Republicans were to win the majority. Unfunded mandates, the bane of governors from both parties, was high on the list, along with a number of small-government and government-accountability issues. A prop contract document was signed by candidates in dramatic fashion on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. The combination of Bill Clinton’s unpopularity and the solidarity the Contract with America forged among Republicans resulted in one of the most dramatic election outcomes in American history. In what is often referred to as the Republican Revolution of 1994, fifty-four House seats and four U.S. Senate seats changed from Democrat to Republican, giving Republicans control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in more than half a century. 

The landslide election also changed the landscape for governors. By the end of election night, it became clear there would be a net gain of twelve more Republican governors, taking our total to thirty. Many of the new governors were from large states like Texas and New York. 

The ground had shifted tectonically, and so did the nature of my upcoming Republican Governors Association meeting at Williamsburg. The RGA conference became the first place the Republican Party gathered after the election, and all the current and future stars were there. I had a tiger by the tail. Not only were the facilities way too small to handle this much-larger crowd but everybody within the orbit of politics wanted to be there, too. A lot of egos were involved, and there was much business to be done.

What I assumed would be a conference attended by eighteen to twenty-four Republican governors suddenly became thirty governors and the new leadership of the House of Representatives and Senate. What I had hoped would be a building block on which to quietly lay a foundation for the Conference of the States became a launch pad for the new Republican majority of the U.S. government. Most significantly, it changed the horizon from one of working out a long-term structural change to immediate legislative opportunity. 

Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, a colorful GOP figure who would later become governor of Mississippi, met with us early on the first day. He noted that welfare reform was among the promises made in the Contract with America and urged us to be aggressive as governors in asking for a seat at the table to address the problems with welfare and Medicaid. Several prominent Republican governors, such as Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and John Engler of Michigan, had built big reputations on those issues. 

The morning of the second day, I arranged to go for a walk with Newt Gingrich so we could discuss the meetings we would hold later in the day. We left about 5:30 a.m. and decided to walk through the historic section of Old Town Williamsburg. It was still dark, and a deep fog had settled in. As we walked, Newt, a historian, began to talk about events that had occurred in some of the old colonial buildings we passed. There was Bruton Parish Episcopal Church, where Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry, and George Mason attended church. Then Wetherburn’s Tavern, where they dined. Strolling among those storied places through the fog made the moment surreal. 

“If we have the flexibility to design the programs . . . we can do it, we can do it smarter, we can do it for less money.”

I introduced the idea of involving the governors in drafting legislation dealing with welfare and Medicaid reform. Newt had been primed for this discussion by Haley Barbour, so he responded quickly and positively to the value of having the governors’ involvement, and just as importantly, he connected with the federalism theme. Gingrich acknowledged the fact that governors administer the programs and have unique understanding of the problems. Reforming the American welfare system was a substantive point within the Contract with America, and it was clear that Newt wanted to engage us. I also wanted to bring him along on the Conference of the States. He found it interesting and was clearly aligned with us, but it was also obvious, and understandable, that he was focused intensely on the monumental job immediately ahead of him. 

Later that morning, Newt Gingrich, who would soon be elected the first Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives in forty years, spoke with brilliance on the spirit of our federalism theme. To the governors directly, he said he wanted our help in writing the actual welfare reform bill—an offer we immediately accepted. I promised to assemble a team of governors to do so. All this, however, was done in the sense of euphoria that accompanies such grand moments. It ignored the reality that there were other members of Congress who would play a role—not to mention the now minority party and administration that would become part of the discussion soon enough. 

One of the congressional staff leaders, Ron Haskins, who accompanied the future speaker to our meeting in Virginia, later wrote a book, Work Over Welfare, about the bruising two-year battle that we were all about to enter. His book described the headiness of the meeting, beginning with the opening day news conference on November 20. “A host of Republican governors raised objections to the leading House GOP welfare reform plan,” he said. “John King of the Associated Press quoted Utah governor, Michael Leavitt as summing up the position of all the governors: ‘Give us the ball and get out of the way.’ Even the moderate Republican Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey got into the act, declaring that “if we have the flexibility to design the programs . . . we can do it, we can do it smarter, we can do it for less money.”(1)

Two days into the meeting, Haskins continued, Gingrich and incoming Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole had a lengthy breakfast with a handful of Republican governors, in which Gingrich and Dole both gave speeches. “Probably still feeling a rush from the spectacular election result, both the governors and Gingrich and Dole may well have been prone to flattering each other and to an exaggerated sense of trust. In a speech interrupted several times by standing ovations, Gingrich . . . told the governors they would have much greater control over welfare programs. He said: ‘We can’t be here suggesting the social engineering of the right will be more clear than the social engineering of the left.’ He also said, ‘This is the meeting which crystallized the process of getting power out of Washington.’”(2) 

I had organized this crystallizing meeting. And at its conclusion I committed to appointing a task force of governors to follow through and deal with three subjects: welfare, Medicaid, and a balanced budget amendment. We also agreed to hold a summit on these topics in Washington early in January 1995, just a month and a half away. 

The power of Williamsburg as a setting had established federalism as a theme and focal point for the new ruling party in Washington. The effect had been profound, but different than I anticipated. It was amplified in a totally unexpected way. I planned the meeting hoping to jump start a process and energize a movement to change the state-federal relationship in a structurally permanent way. As it turned out, the big winner was the concept of “devolution of power.” 

Devolution, the New Thing

While the idea of moving power to a more local level has been part of political debate for a long time, the concept of devolution was popularized during that time in a long simmering clash in the United Kingdom over the degree of autonomy that Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland would have from Westminster. The U.K. disputes were resolved through devolution in the late 1990s. Given its currency, it was natural that a new insurgency over the power of American states would adopt the same strategic description. 

In our case, however, it also represented a need to acknowledge a fundamental change in approach. The idea of the Conference of the States targeted significant constitutional change as its objective—we wanted to alter the structure of our government to reinforce its original federalist shape. But the election of 1994 forced a new reality. 

Our ability to capture mindshare in the media and among the people now had to compete with a much more mainstream drama—an ideological and political competition in Washington over legislation. The atmosphere had changed quickly, and the Conference of the States initiative no longer had the road to itself. Our steady progression through the states to achieve a permanent constitutional change was now overtaken by a more clamorous and expedient focus on devolution through legislation. 

The good news was that the debate was still focused on the same state-federal power balance. The bad news was that any change made legislatively can be as easily changed back or subverted. Devolutionary power can be “de-devolved” or taken back by subsequent legislation, whereas constitutional change is not so easily undone. However, it became clear to me that the legislative track was the way things would go, which was not a positive development for federalism in the long run. We were headed toward a more achievable but less permanent outcome. Still, I figured it was a positive development to have the airwaves filled with federalist-style discussion, and since I could do nothing about it, we needed to make the best of the situation. 

“This gives to the states all powers not specifically granted to the federal government.”

Despite all the congressional discussion at the RGA conference, I was able to complete a piece of the original Conference of the States agenda. We had presumed the election would produce more Republicans but did not plan on such a profound showing. Conference of States planners had composed a departing statement for the Williamsburg meeting, a bold declaration of the movement’s intent. Titled simply “The Williamsburg Resolve,” it had been circulated to staff and tweaked by many. In the end, the governors adopted it without major discussion, and because the original agenda had been totally hijacked by the election results, it made no waves. However, it was a thoughtful, compelling document and deserved more attention than it was given.

Onward from Williamsburg

The Williamsburg RGA conference had completely stirred the pot on federalism. A passion by governors and leaders of Congress to return power to states was the ideological topic of the day—big time—on airways, in newspapers, and among opinion makers and political pundits.

Republican governors now controlled large and small states, and the conference had served as a reminder and unifying event. Governors began to think more about the role of states. For example, a few years later, George W. Bush promised in his inaugural address as president to revive the Tenth Amendment, emphasizing that it “gives to the states all powers not specifically granted to the federal government.” Federalist objectives had not been part of his campaign for governor, but he was now on board amid the post-election federalist fervor of other governors and congressional leaders.(3)

Back home in Utah shortly after Williamsburg, my governor’s office team convened a meeting. I sat in my customary spot at the end of the walnut table in the formal office. Around me sat Charlie Johnson, chief of staff; policy deputy LaVarr Webb; communications deputy Vicki Varela; general counsel Robin Riggs; scheduler and personal assistant Alayne Peterson; and budget director Lynne Ward. Joanne Neumann, who headed my Washington office, joined by conference phone.

Charlie always conducted these meetings, using an agenda he typed himself just before the meeting started. For the next thirty minutes we marched through most of Charlie’s list. He then spoke to Joanne over the phone: “Joanne, give us report on Williamsburg and where we go from here.” 

“Where should we start?” Joanne responded. “LaVarr, I need you to weigh in here too. A lot has changed.” 

Indeed, a lot had changed. Each of us knew the conference represented a profound inflection point in our work, perhaps more than any other event we had experienced as a team in our short two years working together. 

While still relatively unknown on a national basis, I was now chair of an emerging force in American politics, the Republican governors. It was not just the fact that there were now thirty member-governors of RGA. More importantly, the Republican governors were now a critical component of watershed political change that aimed directly at sending power back to the states in programs such as welfare and Medicaid. States held the key to fulfilling many of the commitments the Republican Party had made in the last election. 

We were now dealing with two separate streams of federalism work: The Conference of the States and the welfare and Medicaid reform efforts in Washington. The combination would demand much of the final two years of my first term. Not only did both have national importance but they were critical to the fulfillment of my agenda in Utah to reform welfare and improve health care. 

Parallel Tracks 

Two weeks after Williamsburg I traveled to North Carolina and Washington, D.C., for two critical meetings related to the Conference of the States. The first, held on December 4, 1994, in North Carolina, was the Council of State Governments annual meeting. Ben Nelson and I spoke to a large audience of public officials asking that the CSG prioritize the Conference of the States as their primary pursuit for the year. They readily did.

Next, we flew to Washington D.C. for a December 5, 1994, meeting of the Conference of the States coordinating committee. The national officers and professional staff of the National Conference of State Legislatures, American Legislative Exchange Council, the Council of State Governments and the National Governors Association were all there. (The State Legislative Leaders Foundations joined later). This meeting was the culmination of our work the previous six months. Collectively, this group had the ability to reach into every legislature in every state in the United States with a unified, credible message. The meeting was spent developing plans to educate legislators nationwide and initiate a process to attract legislative sponsors in each state of a resolution that committed the legislature and governor to send a delegation to the Conference of the States.

It was a rare and significant event for all these organizations to join in league and to join their voices as states on a matter of this importance. There were differences in the level of enthusiasm and appetite for action, but we had succeeded in agreeing on a basic direction. It was a moment that warranted optimism. Ben Nelson and I used the opportunity to do several news interviews on our efforts, including an hour-long segment on C-SPAN where we discussed the problems in the state-federal relationship and teed up our solution.

Asked in the opening minute by host Steve Scully why, as USA Today was reporting, governors were telling Washington to “get off our backs,” I did not sugarcoat it. “Because the federal government is essentially out of control and has overstepped its intended purpose many times, many fold. People of this country know it’s not working, and they want more decisions made in their hometowns and state capitals than they do in Washington, and they’d like the unbridled growth of the federal government to stop.”

States were now pushing back with the Conference of States plan, I said, and “have to be willing to deal with this issue right up front in a competitive way, in a confrontive way, because there is no other player at the constitutional table to get it done.”(4

Over the holidays, LaVarr and I spent considerable time weighing how to reconcile the different goals of the Conference of the States effort with my new duties at RGA. While the RGA’s crusade to devolve power back to the states was ideologically consistent with the Conference of the States, there were very real differences that created an awkward conflict for me. The Republican devolution effort was a partisan fight over legislation. The Conference of the States was a bipartisan effort to change long-term attitudes and the Constitution of the United States. It was evident that one would divert energy and resources from the other. We concluded we had no choice but to drive both efforts forward. Honestly, we had no idea what the outcome would be on either one. 

LaVarr began working with Daniel Sprague from CSG, Bill Pound from NCSL, Sam Brown from ALEC, and Ray Scheppach from NGA to line up sponsors for the conference-authorizing resolutions in every state. I was able to turn my attention to finishing my state budget and preparing a State of the State speech, which dominated my attention during our traditional family vacation to California between Christmas and New Year’s.

“This is key to balancing the federal government budget for the first time in a generation.”

National news during this period was fixated on the transition of power in Congress. For the first time in more than half a century, Republicans would have control of both chambers of Congress. They would be led by the incoming Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and by Senate Majority Leader, Bob Dole, though Senator Dole had already been signaling his intention to run for president against Bill Clinton. It was an engaging drama, and the stage was set for the governors to become part of it. 

Just hours after the new congressional leadership were sworn in on January 5, 1995, they met with governors at the Capitol Hill Club, a popular establishment near the House of Representatives’ Cannon Office Building. It was a grand assembly that included the new leaders, along with the new GOP chairmen of all the major congressional committees. Nearly all thirty Republican governors attended. Joanne Neumann represented me in organizing the meeting. 

The seating arrangements had been done according to protocol. I conducted the meeting, sitting between Speaker Gingrich and Majority Leader Dole. Other governors and congressional leaders were interspersed at rows of tables. Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour hosted and actively participated. Our purpose was to set in motion a unified plan of action to pass welfare and Medicaid reform and a balanced federal budget. 

The governors immediately returned to the theme established at the Williamsburg meetings—the need for a grand bargain under which the states would agree to a fixed level of funding on welfare and Medicaid for five years in exchange for a profound increase of flexibility in how the programs were conducted in each state. 

Though the meeting lasted nearly all day, two things stood out in my mind. First was a moment when Rep. John Kasich, chair of the House Budget Committee, stood and said, “If we can do this, it is the key to balancing the federal government budget for the first time in a generation.” He had nearly jumped out of his seat on hearing the governors’ proposal and immediately set committee staff to the task of estimating savings should such an agreement be struck. Suddenly, members of Congress began to see a partnership with the states as the key to meeting their objectives. It was electric. We agreed to develop work groups, and Gingrich and Dole recommitted that the governors would be at the table when drafting the bills. 

The second memorable part of the meeting was the news conference late in the day, held in the lobby of the Republican National Committee building. It was packed with more than a hundred journalists and dozens of television cameras. While I conducted the news conference, the media wanted to hear from the leadership of the new Congress and the big state governors. I felt a bit invisible at the event. My role in that news conference formed a good metaphor for my role in the entire process. If the Republican governors were a professional baseball team, there would be a handful of well-known superstars, perhaps a star pitcher, home run king, or prominent veteran player. There would be a group of journeymen players who, while not as well known, filled specific roles. I was the team’s captain. I played in the game but also organized the team and needed to keep everybody in line. 

As the work unfolded on welfare and Medicaid reform, the star players were Governors Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and John Engler of Michigan. Both had gained national reputations for leading the charge in their states with groundbreaking welfare reforms. Each came from big states that would play prominently in the upcoming presidential race. 

In many ways my status as a small-state governor was an advantage. I don’t think the big-state governors saw me as a political threat. It’s common for political figures to perceive other politically powerful players as competitors, not teammates. For example, eighteen months later, both Engler and Thompson would be vice presidential possibilities. Few people would see me as a threat in that way. In addition, I had formed personal relationships with every governor on both sides of the aisle through my leadership work at RGA, the NGA, and the WGA. Likewise, I had spent time with all of them building support for the Conference of the States. 

The meeting was a milestone and set in force a unique period of cooperation between Congress and the governors that endured for nearly two years. The relationship was not personality based but a partnership of mutual benefit. Congress needed what the governors could bring and conversely held the keys to what the governors wanted. 

I still needed to advance the ball on the Conference of the States in my own state. The Utah Legislature supported the concept and on January 16, 1995, legislators passed the resolution authorizing Utah to send a delegation to the conference. That evening, standing in front of a joint legislative session and live on every television station in the state, I offered my third State of the State address and heralded the moment.

Earlier today you, the Legislature, passed a resolution proposing that Utah send a delegation to join with other states in a historic convocation, a Conference of the States, to consider ways to fundamentally and permanently restore balance in the American system of government. I will join legislators at the conclusion of my remarks to sign this important resolution.

The Conference of the States will be the first time in our history since that celebrated convention in 1787 that the states of this nation have come together to address this issue of balance in our governance. This is our stewardship in protecting the vitality and integrity of American democracy. It is our responsibility, our role . . . and it must be done. 

This was consistent with my first inaugural address, where I declared I would use part of my time as governor being a warrior in the battle to rebalance power at the state and national levels. And two years after making that commitment, we were pushing briskly ahead.

Welfare and Medicaid Reform

Welfare and Medicaid reform were not new ideas in 1995. Both sides of the political aisle knew something needed to be done. Even President Bill Clinton, shortly after his election, came to the first NGA winter meeting I attended in February 1993 to announce he would form a task force to “end welfare as we know it.” Caseloads nationally were exploding. A well-known study done by David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane, professors at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, indicated that sixty-five percent of all welfare recipients stayed on the assistance rolls for eight years or more. In 1994, about three-and-a-half million adults were on welfare.(5)

Republicans in the House of Representatives filed bills representing various ideologies on how to remedy the problem, following through on their pledge in the Contract with America. 

As it turns out, while Gingrich and Dole had been explicit in their commitment to involve the governors, there were forces among the various congressional committees that did not feel bound by that commitment, or at least interpreted it differently. They viewed legislation drafting as their duty. In fact, many of them, like Rep. Clay Shaw of Florida who headed the House Ways and Means Committee, had been working on welfare reform for several years and were not inclined to yield authority or authorship, particularly after achieving newfound majority status. Those struggles would become more prominent as time went on. 

At the core of the complexity were significant divisions that still existed among Republican members of Congress on the direction of welfare. There was a group on the right that seemed to center on two philosophical issues. One was the role that work requirements should play in qualifying for welfare. The second dealt with the way society perceived mothers who have children outside of marriage. There were also Republicans who concurred with the philosophies of Charles Murray, a theorist and political science scholar and author who believed welfare programs should be eliminated altogether. Governors, for the most part, had quite practical views on these subjects, but their presence in the debate wasn’t viewed as helpful by the various factions. 

There are few more predictable things in politics than a political party overreaching when they regain power. It is inevitable. Fresh off a victory, no matter how wide or narrow, there is a feeling of invincibility and urgency to deliver the full measure of their mandate. Part of the overreach is the assumption that they can pass exactly what they want, and the opposing party (the enemy) has no right to be at the table because their team was defeated. This was true of the Republicans in Congress following the 1994 election. They were clearly overreaching. 

Typically, governors are less partisan, but the 1994 election seemed to imbue Republican governors with the same tendency for overreach. This was manifested primarily in the thinking that there was no need to talk to Democrats. Though I was chair of the Republican Governors Association, I thought this approach was absurd. It just seemed obvious that the method defied reality. Even if the House of Representatives could jam a bill through, Democrat involvement would be necessary to get a bill passed by the Senate because of its rules requiring sixty votes. Then there was the ultimate backstop—the president. Bill Clinton wasn’t going to sign a bill prepared without Democrat involvement. 

By this time, I had also begun to play a significant role in the National Governors Association, and as Republican governors and the leadership of Congress worked to develop ideas and draft legislation, I kept pushing to engage with Democrat governors. I had two reasons for doing so. The first was totally practical—nothing was going to pass without bipartisan support. Second, I believed politics was playing out at two levels. Yes, Republicans and Democrats were colliding here, but ultimately this was going to be a collision between states and the federal government. I felt like the interests of states would be better represented if there was buy-in from all states, not just Republican states. 

Time proved me to be right—but naive. The lesson I relearned is that as logical and predictable as the common-sense middle ground is, politicians—no matter the party—are, for the most part, emotionally incapable of moving toward bipartisanship until they have played out the illusion of rolling the other side and getting exactly what they want. No matter how obvious the illusion. I suppose it has something to do with satisfying the more extreme views on both sides that often give political issues energy. It may also be like a negotiation that requires anchoring in a decidedly self-interested way, and then inching toward reality as a protection against the other side, which will undoubtedly do the same thing. 

“Parents on welfare sign a ‘social contract,’ which commits them to spending at least 20 hours a week in training, work education or community service.”

The work the Republican governors were doing with congressional leadership had two primary components, welfare reform and Medicaid reform. The GOP’s two welfare stars, Governors Thompson and Engler, had carved out well-deserved reputations in welfare reform. In his home state of Wisconsin, Governor Thompson had initiated a program he called Wisconsin Works or W-2 (named as a symbol of the IRS wage-reporting tax form), which replaced Wisconsin’s benefits-based system with one that required individuals to find work and provided money for both school and childcare. It also provided support to working families and individuals.(6

Both of these concepts contradicted the philosophy of the national welfare system known as Aid to Families and Dependent Children (AFDC), which had no requirement for work and, in fact, created disincentives for people to work. Tommy Thompson had done a great job in defining the issue nationally. The problem was federal law would not provide matching money for states that adopted such an effort. 

John Engler had followed a different path to a similar result in Michigan. The New York Times described his approach this way: “Parents on welfare sign a ‘social contract,’ which commits them to spending at least 20 hours a week in training, work education or community service. The state, in turn, makes work possible by subsidizing childcare and health coverage. It also makes work attractive by allowing enrollees to keep more of their earnings.”(7)

While I had begun to push for similar reforms in Utah, it was evident to me that Thompson and Engler had the national brand and knowledge required to carry the water on welfare. I appointed them to co-chair the Republican Governors Association task force that was working with House Republican leadership to draft a bill.

The essence of the working partnership between governors and congressional leaders that developed at the Capitol Hill Club meeting was for states to accept a five-year capped amount of welfare money, in exchange for the flexibility to innovate the way Thompson and Engler were doing. True to their commitment, Republican leadership invited Republican governors to be at the table in writing the welfare reform bill. 

However, the idea of the governors writing the bill or even being at the table was not shared by many members of the Republican caucus, most notably the chairs of the relevant committees who felt that Gingrich and Dole had overpromised by inviting the governors into a process they owned. Likewise, some movers and shakers among the think tank crowd were upset that governors had been invited. Organizations such as the Heritage Foundation felt they were the full partners with Congress in the development and shaping of various proposals. Work over Welfare describes how Robert Rector, a Heritage Foundation analyst, reacted. “I talked with Rector several times as the Williamsburg lovefest was taking place. He was livid. He immediately began telling the press, in his no-holds-barred manner, about how inept the governors were and how they would kill true welfare reform. [Florida Rep. Clay] Shaw and I were in total agreement with Rector and other conservatives that welfare should not just be turned over to the governors.”(8)

Some of the objections from members of Congress were grounded in a tussle over ideology on matters such as the best way to discourage out-of-wedlock births and handle work requirements. Conservatives wanted a hard ideological line drawn dictating their view. Governors wanted flexibility to experiment and to mold state policy to fit individual state interests. However, they were also protecting their turf. The turf battles were multi-dimensional. State-federal politics played into the discussion, but so did fights over which committee had jurisdiction on these issues. 

While Engler and Thompson did continue to have input, the role offered by Gingrich and Dole to write the bill and to be full partners began to diminish. I continued to participate, but only at a high-level, leaving Thompson and Engler to carry the heaviest load on the issue with Congress. I decided instead to focus on Medicaid. This made sense for many reasons. I was far more interested in the Medicaid side of the entitlement coin. Thompson and Engler were the rockstars on welfare, and I wasn’t needed there. I could focus better on my own state’s welfare reform initiatives. Also, the welfare reform effort was hampered at the outset, in my view, by the refusal to engage with Democrats. 

Medicaid interested me more than welfare reform because the dollars were bigger—nearly four times as large—and the long-term impact on state and federal budgets would clearly be more profound. Perhaps most of all, I could have more impact. The Medicaid issue needed an owner among the governors, and I decided to step into the breach. 

Members of Congress had been working on welfare reform for at least two years before the 1994 election. Thinking was better developed on welfare, and so it moved more quickly than Medicaid. Medicaid had been at the heart of the Clinton health care proposal, and Republicans had been concentrating on defeating that proposal, as opposed to creating their own. 

Conference of the States Succumbs 

The outcome of the 1994 election effectuated a change in circumstances for organizers of the Conference of the States. We had not anticipated the profound shift that upended the power structure of Congress and altered the underlying environment we were operating in. 

The Conference of States strategy was designed to create bipartisan support among the states to shift power back to the states. We wanted the conference to remind the federal government that states had power. We aspired to have the Philadelphia meeting in advance of the 1996 presidential election. We knew the Conference of the States was not a bonfire but rather the match to light a bonfire. It was to be the first salve in what we presumed would be a decade-long fight. 

We had succeeded in unifying the five most influential nonpartisan organizations of elected state and local officials. We were starting to gain attention of national media. LaVarr and CSG worked with the legislative leaders in identifying sponsors in each state. We found early success in more than a dozen states. Governor Nelson and I did our best to fan the simmering embers a glow in the media. One of the most prominent national journalists to write positively about the conference plan was senior Washington Post columnist David Broder, dean of the D.C.-based press corps. Broder had long written favorably about federalism and state innovations, and he was one of the first to take note when our plan gained traction.

“The boldest step of all—which has drawn amazingly little notice—is the effort endorsed last weekend by the Council of State Governments to call a Conference of the States—first cousin to a Constitutional Convention—next year,’’ Broder wrote on December 11, 1994.(9)

His column described the process and timetable, and continued: 

The sponsors are thinking of bold, even radical, steps to “correct” what they see as the imbalance of power that gives Congress and the federal courts domination over state government. They talk of allowing states to initiate constitutional amendments, rather than simply ratifying them. They contemplate ‘sunsetting’ or, in effect, nullifying federal statutes by action of two-thirds of the states.

They know this whole proposal will stir up controversy. “What could be better?” Leavitt asks, “than to make the 1996 political year the occasion for another great debate on the issues that fascinated Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton and Jay?” What indeed?

Notoriety attracted critics. Only a few weeks into the start of the 1995 legislative season, it became evident that an odd coalition of far right and far left organizations was forming against the Conference of the States. 

Far right detractors saw the effort as a constitutional convention—a “con-con,” as they dubbed it. They advanced the argument that such a gathering would spin out of control and ultimately set about rewriting the Constitution. Some of the more fanciful among them feared the conference would fall into the hands of conspiratorial types who would seize control of the United States on behalf of hostile interests, some political and some financial. Meantime, elements on the far left regarded any shifting of authority from a centralized government to the state and local level as a weakening effect that would complicate their policy efforts to build the influence of the federal government. 

Perhaps the highlight of the far-right assault came when the conference was featured as the cover story in the March 6, 1995, edition of The New American, a magazine published by the John Birch Society, a well-known ultra-conservative, anti-communism organization. I was the cover photo, and the article by Birch Society researcher Don Fotheringham was a sucker punch.

Utah Governor Mike Leavitt seems to think the United States Constitution is obsolete. He has teamed up with Governor Ben Nelson of Nebraska to set in motion the mechanism for making fundamental changes to our constitutional structure. A good deal of groundwork has already been laid for what the two governors have labeled a ‘Conference of the States,’ clearly one of the most startling and revolutionary developments of our time.

The John Birch Society, which would become our most organized critic, believed the conference was a Trojan horse attempt to recreate the constitutional convention of 1787, and to rework the Constitution in the process. The Fotheringham article continued: 

The real motivation behind the Conference of the States is the very opposite of the avowed purpose, otherwise no high-powered convocation would be needed. The states could announce their assertion of the Tenth Amendment in a telephone conference call, and divest themselves of federal usurpations by engaging only in those state-federal activities for which there is constitutional authority. The states, whether they meet or not, already possess the power to cast aside the unconstitutional shackles of the federal government. All the states need do to escape federal oppression is to send the federal checks back to Washington with the following explanation: 

‘We respectfully return checks paid out of the federal treasury for activities that the federal government has no constitutional authority to engage in or to impose upon the states as set forth in the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.’(10) 

The Conference of States resolutions were taking hold and making their way through state legislatures at this point. Once this momentum became evident to far-right critics, they began to mobilize. The mobilization was not a huge surprise; most interesting was the way they used technology to advance their position.

In 1995 the internet was just emerging in society. While personal computers were in an early stage of adoption, hardly anyone used the internet. In fact, the internet browser had just been invented. Those who went “online” at that time used what was known as an internet bulletin board, a static place where digital messages could be posted. Interested parties could use an internet dial-up service to read the bulletin board. 

Organizations like the John Birch Society and other advocacy organizations were very early adopters of the Internet and its bulletin boards, and they used that capability to convey strength way beyond their actual numbers or influence. They had networks of followers in various states. Once the Conference of the States had been identified as a threat, it became the “boogeyman” the groups required to perpetuate themselves.

The Birch Society used its network of people to begin watching state legislative calendars for any sign of a Conference of States resolution. Once it was filed, negative letters to the editor would begin to pop up in newspapers alleging the creation of a “con-con.” These articles would be sent to legislators. When legislative hearings were scheduled, the date and room number would be posted on the group’s internet bulletin board with an all-hands-on-deck-type message. When legislators would go to a hearing, a sizeable number of people with signs and flyers were there to denounce the effort. During public comment periods, many would speak against the resolution, but nobody would be present to speak in favor. Special interest and advocacy groups have used organizing and protest methods throughout modern political history, both before the dawn of the internet, and to much more amplified and shrill effect in the era of social media. What was new here was use of the internet itself, and the speed and connectivity it provided.

A good example of how our opponents worked occurred in the California legislature. Legislative sponsors of the resolution contacted LaVarr Webb and said they were taking “incoming” from opponents. They asked for someone to come speak affirmatively about the resolution. LaVarr agreed and flew to Sacramento for the hearing.

“There's no question that this movement has slowed us down.”

 In a news article on April 2, 1995, The Salt Lake Tribune ran a story by Laurie Sullivan, (who would join my administration two years later), capturing what occurred in California and the tactics being deployed across the United States. Her account:

In January, it seemed nothing could stop the steamroller Gov. Mike Leavitt, and his states’ rights soul mates were driving toward a historic Conference of States this fall in Philadelphia.

Legislatures in a dozen states quickly enacted promises to attend. Support virtually was unanimous among the 50 governors. And the bright young Westerners pitching the new federalism watched their stars glow hot in the political firmament.

Leavitt policy boss LaVarr Webb traveled to Sacramento in March to help guide California’s formal “Resolution of Participation” to passage.

There, in a legislative committee room, Webb stared down dozens of angry conservatives worried about undermining the Constitution. The California lawmakers killed the resolution. Webb blinked, and for the first time so did the Conference of States... 

... “There’s no question that this movement has slowed us down,” Leavitt said. “What they have done is made it rather painful for people in some states to support this because they’ll have 50 faxes come to their desk on a given day.”

Better yet, they will show up in person, said Birch writer and researcher Don Fotheringham of Las Vegas, who has dogged conference advocates from state to state as a witness at legislative hearings. Since the group became aware of the conference’s formalizing procedures, Birch followers have packed hearings in 10 states. All 10 subsequently rejected the resolutions of participation.

What’s more, Fotheringham predicts that conference organizers never will get resolutions passed by 26 states.

By the spring of 1995, as legislative sessions were drawing to a close, the Conference of States resolution had been approved by both chambers of the legislatures in fourteen states, and another eighteen had seen passage in one chamber. Most of that progress occurred in the first three months of the year. Then suddenly, our momentum was gone.

The fact that we were derailed so easily by a smattering of groups demonstrated how thin the support and understanding of the concept was among state legislators. At the smallest barrage of opposition, legislators folded. Apparently, the issue mattered so little to them that they had no will to stand up for their position against any organized opposition. Our mistake, though, was our top-down approach. It meant we had not organized deeply enough, and legislators had no defenders. 

The legislative wrangling over federalism was winding down just as partisan debate on devolution issues in Congress started to rage in Washington, D.C. Legislators, most of whom are part-time, went back to their homes and full-time livelihoods. Governors had states to run. And we had no formal organization or entity to take on the Conference of States plan. The movement had been relying on an assemblage of supporting organizations. The Conference of the States did not have a bank account, an executive director, or even an office. It was an idea. We were simply un-provisioned to engage in the long-term education and debate required to overcome that weakness. 

It was a disappointment for me. I had put a lot of time, energy, and political capital on the line, and we were being stopped by arguments that were simply untrue—and loaded with irony. Ironic, in that the largest far-right group opposing us was united by fear of a runaway government. Still, they became resolved to defeat a worthwhile movement that sought to corral the oversized federal government and move power closer to home within state and local governments. We were the best allied force they would ever have. 

We were tempted, and confident, that we could overcome the opposition with time and continued effort. But I had to make some time-priority choices. As chair of the Republican Governors Association, I had a central role in the legislation to devolve power to the states on welfare and Medicaid. Likewise, I was chair of the Western Governors’ Association and had accepted a seat on the executive committee of NGA. Plus, I had a state to run. 

Ultimately, the leaders of the five organizations of state officials decided to hold a federalism summit in Cincinnati, Ohio from October 22–25, 1995, the dates we had already reserved for the Conference of the States. We tried to put a good face on it by publishing a monograph related to the future of federalism, but the reality is, we had tried but failed to unite the states in the way we had imagined. 

Failure is a great teacher, and good often comes from experience, even when we don’t succeed. I look back on the entire process and have to say some very good things came from it. I formed relationships in every state, with every governor, and most of the state legislative leaders in the country. I have often laughed to myself about how valuable those would have been to somebody like Bob Dole, who was running for president in 1996. I had built an ideological following of friends and co-believers. 

Perhaps the most important observation is the contribution the Conference of the States had in creating the tone at Williamsburg and nudging the Republican agenda toward what became devolution. I remain of the view that our national government will not be constrained unless there is structural shift of power to states. Having said that, I am pleased with the progress I made in contributing to the next chapter of federalism. 

Welfare and Medicaid Reform Take Center Stage 

As the Conference of States saga was playing out in early 1995, round one of welfare reform was also under way and heating up. The dynamics were complicated. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole had invited the governors to be at the table, but congressional committee leaders, while willing to listen, jealously guarded control of the reform bill as their product and prerogative. 

“Shouldn’t we be talking to the Democrat governors? Sooner or later we’re going to need them.”

I had started working on Medicaid reform while contributing to the welfare bill where I could. I was not only doubtful but astonished that my colleague Republicans thought they could make their bill law. Given that congressional Democrats and the Clinton White House had been essentially excluded from meaningfully participating in creation of the bill, a veto seemed certain.

The maneuvering ensued with a number of showdowns and skirmishes. In the end, the congressional majority leadership tried to pressure Clinton to sign the GOP bill by withholding their support for a budget bill funding the government. On November 13, 1995, Clinton coolly vetoed the budget bill, resulting in a shutdown of the federal government the next day. Both parties blamed the other side, but the public sided with the president, and Republican congressional leadership caved.

Then, after some pushing and pulling, Republicans passed essentially the same bill and on December 6, 1995, Clinton vetoed it again. This time he also vetoed an omnibus package of bills that included the Republican welfare bill. My skepticism was totally validated. My party had overreached, and the nascent Republican revolution was on its heels.

Republican leaders licked their wounds and, with the government operating again, began to organize another charge up the hill. During the middle of that effort, the short-term appropriation that had temporarily gotten the government operating again ran out, and the government was shut down a second time. 

From left: Governor Bill Weld (MA), Newt Gingrich, Mike Leavitt, Bob Dole. Republican Governors meeting,

Capitol Hill, 1995

If one read media accounts of this drama, they would likely draw the conclusion this was about differences in policy on work requirements and other provisions of the bill. I don’t think it was. There were plenty of ways to bridge their differences. The Democrats just wanted to be included in a real process in the same way Republicans want to be included when the Democrats are in control. My point is illustrated by a news conference that congressional leadership asked me to participate in on December 21, 1995, as they prepared to pass yet another version of their bill.

Ron Haskins’ Work over Welfare described it this way: 

Following House passage of the bill, [House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill] Archer and [Florida Rep. Clay] Shaw sponsored a press conference with governors John Engler, Tommy Thompson and Mike Leavitt of Utah to emphasize the decisive House action on the conference report and to pressure the Senate to pass the bill and Clinton to sign it. Held in the handsome and cozy Ways and Means Room H-137 on the first floor of the Capitol Building, the press conference was well attended, with all the members and governors speaking with obvious emotion. As part of the press conference, the governor released a letter to the president, signed by every Republican governor, urging him to sign the welfare reform bill. Clinton was now publicly promising to veto the bill, but there was still doubt about the Senate vote. Nor was the governor letter as effective as it would have been if even one or two Democratic governors had signed. Without signatures from Democratic governors, the letter could not be expected to put much pressure on Clinton to sign the bill.(11) 

The next day, on December 22, 1995, the Senate passed the bill. On January 9, 1996, Bill Clinton vetoed it again.

Finally, Bipartisanship

During the Williamsburg RGA Conference when we were huddling with congressional leaders, I had asked the question—shouldn’t we be talking to the Democrats? It was as if I had spoken heresy. Republicans had won the election; we were going to be in control of the committees and the process. I felt a little embarrassment. I’d never been in Congress; I felt lucky to be part of the process; and I concluded to not bring it up again, even though it seemed absurd that we could pass sweeping welfare reform and fundamentally change Medicaid on a partisan basis while Bill Clinton was president of the United States.

In a more comfortable setting with my colleague governors, I asked the question again, “Shouldn’t we be talking to the Democrat governors? Sooner or later we’re going to need them.” Another governor said, “Republican leadership simply doesn’t want to talk to any Democrats; it’s their turn.”

The election of 1994 was the first power transition I watched from the inside. I have now witnessed changes of power numerous times: 1993, 1995, 1998, 2000, 2006, 2010, 2016, 2018. This distorted thought that we will now get what we want happens with such consistency I’ve come to accept it as a given. A party out of power when returned to power will always overreach. 

Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz is well known for his adage that war is the continuation of politics by other means. I’ve come to believe one can reverse the phrase and it still remains true. Politics is war by other means. Clausewitz taught that war is fought not just to prevail in one’s objectives but also to render the adversary incapable of resisting. “War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will,” he said. In other words, if either side believes that it has a sustainable advantage, there is no incentive to settling for less than everything. The distortion warring political parties suffer is the thought they have a sustainable advantage. They view their majority as a permanent condition. Only when they begin to feel their vulnerability will they begin to consider the obvious value of compromise. 

“My greatest regret was that the chance to deeply reform welfare comes perhaps once in a generation.”

Democrats had to demonstrate they could defeat the Republicans before the GOP would bring them to the welfare reform table. And beat them, they did. Haskins described the Republican state of mind: “Now welfare, the debt ceiling, two continued resolutions, and reconciliation—some of the most important legislation produced by Congress in decades—had been vetoed. Our agenda had been smashed. The Republican revolution was floundering.”

Congressional staffers like Ron Haskins were demoralized by the checkmate after working frenetically for weeks on end. “My greatest regret was that the chance to deeply reform welfare comes perhaps once in a generation,” he wrote. “Attempts to reform welfare in the Nixon, Carter, and even under Reagan provided at least a start on conservative welfare reform built around work. If our bill had now joined that parade of failure, it would likely be many years or even decades before an opening for fundamental reformed appeared again.”(12)

The Governors’ Time to Play 

I knew the governors could play a big role in reforming the welfare and Medicaid system. Not only did we know the programs intimately, we could also become an island of bipartisanship. Yes, there were ideological differences among us, but we were all dealing with common problems in our states. The scenario had also finally ripened to the point that governors could, if they would, create an environment for progress. 

The story behind the bipartisan governors’ agreement is an important one. Once the bill had been vetoed by President Clinton for the second time, those of us who had been leading both the welfare and Medicaid reform efforts on behalf of all the governors concluded the only way to get the discussion back on track was the emergence of a bipartisan agreement among the governors. In Congress, Republican and Democrat members had become warring tribal interests. 

I was flying to Washington, D.C., on a regular basis by now, as well as to governors association trips to various cities. All told, I made more than one hundred trips. 

A group of six governors—three Republican, three Democrat, and all leaders in the National Governors Association—began meeting in Washington, D.C., with a bipartisan bill as an objective. The Republicans were Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, now chair of the NGA; John Engler, who had been lead governor on welfare reform for the Republican Governors Association; and me. Though I was no longer chair of the RGA, I had assumed the lead role on Medicaid for both NGA and RGA and was a member of the NGA Executive Committee. I had been there from the beginning of the welfare and Medicaid discussions, and as RGA Chair had managed many of the relationships and discussions—especially on Medicaid. The Democrat governors included Roy Romer of Colorado, who was the dean of the Democrat governors; Bob Miller of Nevada, the vice chair of NGA; and the governor of Florida, Lawton Chiles, who served for many years in the U.S. Senate. Howard Dean of Vermont would occasionally participate, as would Tom Carper of Delaware.(13)

Our discussions started shortly after the first Clinton veto. I made repeated trips to Washington, D.C., between December 1995 and February 1996, most of them directly related to these talks. Our objective was to come up with bills reforming welfare and Medicaid that could be supported by both Republican and Democrat governors. The mid-year NGA meeting would be held in Washington the first week of February, and we wanted to make it public then. 

From left: Mike Leavitt, Al Gore, President Bill Clinton. Meeting of the governors at the White House in February 1999. 

We did not keep track of the number of hours that group spent in a room together. There is wide agreement among those who participated that it was more than one hundred hours, not counting staff hours in between meetings, conference calls, or one-on-one sessions. Most of the meetings took place in conference rooms at the Hall of States, the building where NGA is headquartered and many of the states have offices. The meetings were attended routinely by our respective state Medicaid and welfare staffers and the directors of our Washington offices. For me, that meant Joanne Neumann was there all the time, alongside Mary Kay Mantho and LeAnne Redick, Governor Engler’s Washington leads on Medicaid and welfare. The NGA staff also assisted. Rod Betit who ran the Utah Department of Health (Medicaid), and Robin Arnold Williams, who ran the Department of Social Services, were regularly called on for technical assistance. 

A volume could be written around the relationships, dynamics, and complexity of that negotiation. There was no chair or clear leader. Six to eight governors sitting in a room without windows for hours on end, working to develop what turned out to be a four-page, double-spaced document spelling out the details of our agreement. 

The discussions were not secret. Both the White House and congressional leaders knew what was happening. But they were consumed by their own efforts. Whenever we would break, individual governors could be seen slipping into corners of the office where they could call either congressional offices or the White House. In some ways, the governors were carrying on a “Track II” negotiation because Track l on Capitol Hill was failing.

I remember the negotiations as an endurance test. But relationships were preserved. In fact, they were enhanced. At times there was friction, but I have no memory of anger. The experience built a closeness among the group that has lasted over many years. And we finally reached an agreement in a long session just before the start of the NGA meetings at the JW Marriott Washington hotel on February 5, 1996.

In a chapter titled: “The Governors Revive The Revolution,” Ron Haskins described the development this way: “As Republicans mulled over the Senate strategy, a deus ex machina appeared in the form of the nation’s governors. The National Governors Association meets every winter in the nation’s capital. . . . it was no surprise that the governors would attempt to revive the welfare debate.”

“A bipartisan agreement among the governors would bring welfare reform back to life in grand style,” he continued.(14)

On February 6, we had a bipartisan agreement on welfare reform and Medicaid endorsed by every Democrat governor.

Within days factions on the left and right had armed themselves. The “governors’ bill,” as it became known, included some significant changes in Medicaid, most of which you could put in the category of flexibility for states in the populations they desired to cover. The biggest change was that the bill provided a block grant to the states—ending the entitlement nature of the bill. It meant states would have to prioritize who they wanted to help. But it would provide both the federal government and the states a sense of certainty in budgeting. 

All of us knew this would need to include a funding formula to decide how much money each state would receive. Earlier in the process, while managing the RGA Medicaid process, I tried to develop a formula. It’s as close as I have ever come to declaring an assignment like that as a fool’s errand. There are winners and losers, and even the most ardent supporter will bail unless the formula treats them well. 

So, there were plenty of critics of the product we developed, but we had revived the process, and it was clear that Congress needed us to keep the bipartisan momentum rolling. As long as we could keep the Democratic governors on board, it would be very difficult for Bill Clinton to veto the bill again. 

Within two weeks, the House of Representatives had started hearings on the governors’ bill. There were moments of tension and partisanship, but these were much less contentious than the preceding partisan hearings. The Senate Finance Committee had six hearings, with additional hearings held on the welfare-specific portion of the bill. Haskins recounted a critical moment in the development of the bill.

A draft bill had been readied by the week of March 5, 1996, as hearings were still under way. On March 26, Haskins and key congressional staff colleagues arranged a conference call with Speaker Gingrich; Rep. Clay Shaw of Ways and Means; House Commerce Committee Chair Tom Bliley; Senate Finance Committee Chair William Roth; and with myself; Governor Thompson; a few congressional staffers; and several staff members representing governors. 

“The plan we had worked out before the phone call was to introduce the bill on Friday, March 29, and to announce the introduction with a big press event featuring both members of Congress and governors. But it developed during the phone call that Medicaid was a big problem and that the Democratic governors and Republican governors were not in agreement.”(15) 

However, I knew there were going to be problems getting from the four-page outline to the granular language of a bill, and on that call things started to fall apart.

Crossing the Finish Line 

April and May became weeks of legislative sausage-making with constant small crises popping up every week. However, two significant issues began to emerge. It had become clear that Senator Bob Dole would be the Republican nominee for president. His campaign began to agitate around the ramifications of passing a welfare reform bill a third time, giving Clinton an opportunity to veto it yet again. Another veto seemed like a bad idea to them. Each time that Clinton previously vetoed the welfare bill, his political position improved, therefore making it harder for Dole to win. So, had Dole remained as majority leader in the Senate, he could have stopped the bill from passing. However, the problem was resolved when Dole resigned from the Senate to pursue his campaign full time. The new leadership in the House and Senate committees concluded to move forward with the welfare bill.

The second issue was a major question for me and the other governors. Should Medicaid reform be dropped from the bill? The complexities were becoming more and more problematic. Eventually, Congressman Dave Camp of Michigan and Senator John Ensign of Nevada approached us, saying it looked increasingly likely that we would have to drop the Medicaid reforms from our bill. I visited both Camp and Ensign, pressing for more time. What became evident to me was that key members in both the House and Senate had been talking about this for a few weeks but nobody wanted to bring it up with the governors. 

Part of the dynamic in Congress is the jurisdictional competition. The welfare bill was going through the Ways and Means Committee while the Medicaid bill was being managed by the Commerce Committee. I also began hearing from Commerce Committee staff that momentum was shifting toward jettisoning Medicaid. Then the Senate Finance Committee marked up their bill, leaving Medicaid out, and it seemed as if the die was cast. My colleagues and I become increasingly concerned and, candidly, rather put out. It wasn’t just that they were throwing Medicaid overboard; they were not being open with us about it. Finally, several governors had a conference call on July 9 with Speaker Gingrich; Reps. Shaw, Archer, and Bliley; and Senators Roth and Lott. Gingrich offered the bottom line. “We can get welfare over the line. We can’t get them both, so we’re going to drop Medicaid.”

By that time, though disappointed, I could understand the rationale for the choice, and I voiced my understanding. One thing that made my decision easier is that President Clinton had said he would veto the bill if Medicaid was included.

The NGA conference that year was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and started on July 14. By the time we got there, the governors were angry, particularly at several provisions that had been put in the bill late. It didn’t feel like the spirit of the partnership was carrying over. An effort was made to find a jet so that a group of us could fly to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to meet with Rep. Shaw. The logistics didn’t work, so an alternate play was hatched. Governor Engler’s welfare staffer LeAnne Redick and I would leave NGA and fly to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with Shaw. My job was to leave a clear message of discontent—and then to see if we could work out a list of remaining issues. Haskins was a participant in the meeting, which became testy. While I recall the trip and the meeting, I do not have detailed notes so I’ll rely on his recollection.


1. Mike Leavitt speaking about federalism at the Environmental Council of the States

2. Mike Leavitt and Governor Ben Nelson of Nebraska at Western Governor’s Meeting in 1994

3. Newt Gingrich and various members of the Republican caucus proposing their 1994 Contract with America

4. Bill Clinton, Mike Leavitt and Jackie at the NGA mid-year meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2000


The meeting got off to a disastrous start. After an exchange of pleasantries, which lasted about five seconds, Leavitt, in a direct and almost heated fashion, told Shaw that he was speaking for all the Republican governors, who were ready to go public denouncing the bill. Shaw sat quietly looking at Leavitt as he delivered his disquisition. When he finished, Shaw responded in an intense but fully controlled voice. The first thing he said was that Leavitt had gotten the meeting off to the “worst possible start.” So we were going to start over and begin with history. Shaw said that he had personally worked with the governors since 1993, that he had carried their water in every hearing and meeting, that we had shared drafts of legislation with them sooner than we did with our own members, and that he had taken every phone call from and accepted every request to meet with governors and to address their meetings in Washington. He had even completely changed his schedule for the last three days so he could accommodate the governors’ request for yet another meeting. Given this background, it was too late for the governors to desert the process now. No governor was going to go public and denounce the bill we had created together. On the contrary, the purpose of this meeting, as of so many previous meetings with the governors, was to figure out ways that Shaw could help address these concerns.

Leavitt seemed to be taken aback by the intensity of Shaw’s response. He immediately said that Shaw had misinterpreted him, and that he had come to Shaw’s office from Puerto Rico specifically to work things out. Leavitt then did a very wise thing—he suggested we talk about the specific issues that concerned the governors. He had come with the list prepared by LeAnne. Because LeAnne and I had been talking so much, our lists were very similar. We worked our way through his list, and Shaw, calling on one of his greatest assets as lawmaker, showed sympathy for all the concerns raised by Leavitt. On most, as I repeatedly assured LeAnne, Shaw actually agreed with the governors and on many he felt we could achieve at least part of what the governors wanted during the House Senate conference.(16)

I worked the rest of the morning with members of the Senate Finance Committee and staff working through a similar list. My final meeting of the day entailed working out some technical issues related to the transfer of funds for the new welfare block grants and Medicaid coverage for children on welfare. From there, I returned to the airport and flew back to Puerto Rico where I could report to the other governors on the progress made.

There were still wrinkles in the welfare bill and some drama over the next two weeks, but the bill passed the House 256 to 170. The Senate passed a similar bill five days later by a vote of 74 to 24. It now had to go to the conference committee to have differences in the two versions reconciled, pass again through both houses, and then get the signature of the president of the United States. 

Over the next month, the conference committee process played out. It was combative and granular— more sausage-making. In the end, final passage came in votes of 328 to 101 in the House and 78 to 21 in the Senate. On August 22, 1996, President Clinton signed the welfare reform legislation into law, setting off what Haskins called “a revolution in American social policy.”

It replaced the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) entitlement program with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, giving states more flexibility to administer welfare, and it is widely considered one of the most effective pieces of government reform in the past half century. Ironically, ten years later, I was secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services when TANF was reauthorized for the first time. I proudly told the story of how the act was passed, collaboratively and on a bipartisan basis with the full support of governors in both parties. 

Summary Conclusion 

This chapter of my history recounts events that led me to become an advocate of federalism and the commitment I made as a candidate for governor to pursue rebalancing the power and influence of our country’s national and state governments. It describes experiences and lessons that came while at the epicenter of national politics and policy making. 

Like many aspects of life, the outcome was not exactly what I aspired it to be. However, good almost always comes from the active pursuit of a noble purpose, and that is the case here. I kept my commitment to be an activist in restoring balance to our system of government. We changed the way the government assists those in need. I grew in experience, knowledge, and prominence. I became a better leader. 

I hope my family and others reading this chapter will internalize an important lesson: Do not be afraid to take on big problems. Develop a plan and start. Some things work, some do not. When events occur that require a pivot, recalibrate the plan and move forward. The important thing is to choose noble pursuits, operate honorably, seek to understand the point of view others hold, and keep moving forward.



1. Ron Haskins, Work over Welfare, Brookings Institution, 2006, p.95

2. Haskins, Work over Welfare, p.95

3. Robert Pear, “Shifting of Power from Washington is seen under Bush.” The New York Times, 7 January 2001, 

4. “State-Federal Relationships,” C-SPAN, 6 December 1994,

5. Haskins, Work over Welfare, 7.

6. Wisconsin Historical Society, “Governor Tommy Thompson and Welfare Reform: Wisconsin Works, BadgerCare, Pathways to Independence.”, 6. Wisconsin Historical Society, “Governor Tommy Thompson and Welfare Reform: Wisconsin Works, BadgerCare, Pathways to Independence.”, https://www.wi 

7. “John Engler, Welfare Maverick,” The New York Times, 21 March 1996. 

8. Haskins, 95–96

9. David S. Broder, “Federalism in a State of Ferment,” Washington Post, 11 December 1994. 

10. Don Fotheringham, “Con-Con Call: Beware Mike Leavitt’s ‘Conference of the States,’” New American, March 6, 1995, 

11. Haskins, 260

12. Haskins, 268 

13. While Engler and Thompson were driving welfare, I had concentrated on Medicaid. My primary congressional partners had been Howard Cohen, staff director of the House Commerce Committee; Bill Hoagland, chief of staff to Senate Budget Committee Chair Pete Domenici; and Dennis Smith, a lead staffer on the Senate Finance Committee. 

14.Haskins, 270

15. Haskins, 278 

16. Haskins, 307–308


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