Featured Author: Elizabeth Mann Levesque

PSQ prides itself on publishing scholarship created by the best and brightest in their respective fields. To highlight some of these exciting contributors and provide an in-depth look at the broader work our authors do, we bring you our Featured Author interview series. This month, we feature Elizabeth Mann Levesque, whose article “Waiving Goodbye to Congressional Constraints: Presidents and Subnational Policy Making” was included in the June 2019 issue of PSQ.

Elizabeth Mann Levesque earned her B.A. and Ph.D. in political science at the University of Michigan. After completing her undergraduate degree, Elizabeth taught middle school social studies in Miami, FL as a Teach for America corps member. She returned to Michigan for her graduate studies where she focused on American politics and political institutions. Subsequently, as a Fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, she studied a wide range of education policy issues, including civics education, employer and community college workforce development partnerships, and federal regulations related to the Every Student Succeeds Act. Elizabeth is currently a Nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institution and an Instructional Consultant for the Foundational Course Initiative at the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching.
Photo credit: Lisa Tune, University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching

What initially sparked your interest in subnational policy-making as it pertains to the presidency?

Before I became a political scientist, I was a middle school teacher. Since then, I’ve been interested in how the state and federal governments share (or compete for) authority in policy areas like K-12 education where the states have traditionally enjoyed a great deal of discretion over designing and implementing policy. In 2012, while in graduate school, I noticed that President Obama was granting states waivers from the unpopular No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This policymaking strategy piqued my curiosity; I had never heard of this type of approach before. It was particularly interesting given that it seemed like the Obama administration was using waivers to influence education policy on a nationwide scale while unable to move legislation through Congress to revise NCLB.

After reading more about waivers, it appeared that this was a valuable strategy employed by multiple presidents. But it also seemed counterintuitive that presidents would turn to a subnational strategy, given the other options at their disposal for national-scale policymaking. I was intrigued by what appeared to be a clever and relatively novel strategy, all the more so because presidents appeared to have used waivers across several policy areas in which the federal government has historically delegated a great deal of policymaking authority to states.

How do you think this ultimately informs our understanding of presidential policy-making, particularly in the current presidency?

I hope this work encourages exploration of innovative presidential policymaking strategies that allow presidents to circumvent Congress without necessarily relying on unilateral action. Relatedly, I think this work raises the question: when and how is the state policymaking environment relevant as the president considers what policymaking strategies are available or attractive to him (or, one day, to her)? These types of questions may be particularly relevant when the president seeks an alternative to unilateral action to avoid a perception of overstepping executive authority.

On the one hand, the current president does not generally shy away from (and at time seems to embrace) confrontations regarding executive overreach. But at the same time, with little hope of moving legislation through Congress and the possibility that the courts may strike down or halt executive actions, this president (and others who find themselves similarly hamstrung) may seek alternatives. In this case, it can be helpful to examine whether presidents see a viable opportunity to work with state policymakers – perhaps through granting governors flexibility from federal law – in a manner that has the potential to advance the president’s own national policy goals. This strategy may take the form of waivers, but I think it’s interesting to investigate whether there are there other strategies that provide a similar opportunity. This type of inquiry may draw our attention to presidential policymaking strategies that are otherwise overlooked.

How do you think your work on this article will guide you in your future research?

A question that I did not focus on in this article, but that warrants inquiry, is: when does Congress decide to grant the executive branch the authority to approve waivers? My colleague Molly Reynolds, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and I became particularly interested in this question in light of the 2017 debate over repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As Republicans in Congress tried to write a bill that would satisfy the various factions within their party, Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) proposed an amendment that would have allowed states to request waivers from a number of provisions central to the ACA. In this high-stakes climate, what considerations did Republican members of Congress weigh as they considered whether to offer this choice to governors in their states, some of whom were from the opposing party? Is this type of compromise proposal – not repealing a section of a law outright, but offering states the opportunity to request an opt-out – something we are likely to see again, and if so, under what conditions? When might it succeed? These questions suggest exciting new areas of research that explore the origins of waiver authority in federal legislation.

What kind of response do you hope your work elicits from your readers? Ideally, what kind of critical thought do you hope your article inspires?

Working on this article taught me to look at the value of policymaking strategies from different perspectives. Waivers can offer governors an opportunity to receive flexibility from federal law, and they can be a valuable vehicle for governors to innovate and experiment with new approaches. However, this flexibility is often offered on the president’s terms, and the scope of policy options available may be defined to align with the president’s own goals.

Beyond waivers, I hope this work sparks questions about whether and how policy-making strategies are valuable for different reasons to different actors, considering, for example, the vantage points of governors and the president. These types of questions can deepen our understanding of the conditions under which presidents and other actors pursue certain policy-making strategies, particularly strategies that initially seem counter-intuitive given our perception of who benefits from them.

Dr. Mann Levesque can be reached at manneliz@umich.edu