Opinion and Forefront

FERGUSON: Indiana governors are not underpowered

August 20, 2011

Margaret FergusonPolitical scientists characterize the power of governors by looking at four elements: the veto, the power to appoint other state executives, the number of terms they are eligible to serve, and the amount of control they have over the budgetary process. By this traditional way of thinking about gubernatorial power, Indiana’s governor is comparatively weak.

However, as both a scholar of the institution of the governorship across the country and an observer of Indiana politics, it is my observation that our governor is far from weak. The governor can, and routinely does, dominate Indiana politics to the exclusion of other actors and often without regard to the Legislature and the separation of powers.

The American presidency has grown in power in recent years as presidents (especially, but not only, President Bush) have asserted greater unilateral power. Executive orders, signing statements and less-formal unilateral action mean presidents can simply assert their will.

Congress has been unable or, perhaps more likely, unwilling to turn the tide back toward a greater balance of power. The separation of powers, even in Washington, is no longer in balance. The executive clearly dominates.

In Indiana, we also have an executive-dominated system. One reason is that Indiana has a “citizen” Legislature. Our General Assembly is a part-time body. Legislators come to Indianapolis for a handful of days and return home to their full-time jobs.

The governor has no such outside obligations. The institutions are not, therefore, evenly matched.

Even in the legislative arena, the governor is surprisingly powerful. Despite the fact that the General Assembly needs only a simple majority in both chambers—the same number of votes required to pass the original legislation—to override the governor’s veto, vetoes are nevertheless rarely overridden. I suspect this is because governors are judicious in their use of the veto, but the fact remains that even where the governor is arguably at a comparative disadvantage, the Legislature typically defers to executive power.

The governorship adapts and grows to suit the desires and personality of the incumbent.

Governors who are more oriented toward legislative authority (such as Frank O’Bannon) typically seek legislative approval for their initiatives. Governors who emphasize executive prerogative (Mitch Daniels and Evan Bayh come to mind) have been successful at exercising it. This is primarily because of the opportunity for unilateral power such as executive orders and other executive actions such as contracting out for services or directing state agencies toward the governor’s policy preferences.

Are there limits to the power of the governorship? Of course. But such limits are dependent upon some other actor’s taking steps to try to rein it in.

Even when governors are particularly aggressive and push the boundaries of what might be viewed as proper (or constitutional), there are no consequences unless there is a challenge—in the courts or, more likely, in the Legislature.

History tells us this rarely happens. Indeed, an astute governor who wants to push the boundaries of executive power can simply do so when legislators are looking the other way. While they are literally out of town.

Certainly, if the Legislature is sufficiently worked up, it can take up the question when it reconvenes. But, again, this rarely happens, especially since most legislators see no point after whatever “damage” has already been done.

Those who lament the “weakness” of Indiana’s governor are overlooking a great deal of power. Those who value the separation-of-powers system should seek to reformulate the General Assembly so that it has the time and professional capacity to formulate thoughtful, effective policy and the will to check chief executives if (and when) they overstep their bounds.•

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Ferguson is an associate professor of political science in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI with expertise in state politics. Views expressed here are the writer’s. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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