Is George W. Bush a “Weak” Governor?

Some of George W. Bush’s critics, particularly Orrin Hatch, disparage him because he occupies a “constitutionally weak governorship.” What makes a governorship strong or weak? Should it reflect poorly on Bush if he is a “weak” governor?

State constitutions grant governors a variety of powers–among them the power to veto bills, appoint officials, and submit a budget to the legislature. A constitutionally strong governor, such as New York’s, can both veto bills and apply a line-item veto to portions of measures he disfavors. A strong governor also appoints most of the members of his Cabinet and can serve multiple terms.

Constitutionally weak governors appoint few top officials. In many states, the voters elect the attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, etc. This makes the officials accountable to the electorate, not the governor, and diffuses his power. Weak governors also face limits of one or two terms, making them automatic lame ducks: They tend to govern less independently and exercise less clout with legislatures than strong governors, who, because they can repeatedly succeed themselves, amass more and more political power.

By most of these criteria, Gov. Bush is a weak governor. Voters elect the Texas attorney general, comptroller, general land commissioner, and state treasurer. Most agencies in Texas are run by commissions or boards whose members outlast the governor who appointed them. The lieutenant governor runs separately from the Texas governor and can belong to a different political party. The Texas governor is not subject to term limits, however.

The job of lieutenant governor of Texas is thought by some to be a more powerful but less glamorous job than that of governor. The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate, appoints the Senate’s committees and committee chairs, controls the flow of bills to the floor, and co-chairs the powerful Legislative Budget Board. (The current lieutenant governor of Texas is a Republican.) The Texas governor can submit a budget to the legislature (he doesn’t have to), but his recommendations are usually discarded. The Texas governor can’t grant clemency to a death-row prisoner, although he can grant a 30-day reprieve until a state board reviews the prisoner’s plea.

The Texas governor can veto bills and make line-item vetoes on appropriations bills. He can also call special legislative sessions, something Bush has never done. But a governor’s clout doesn’t rest only in institutional trappings. Despite the limitations of his office, Bush is still the most powerful politician in Texas. Personal charisma, a hefty electoral mandate, and the cooperation of the legislature can augment the power of any governor. Bush has all three, and he has used them to persuade the legislature to enact incremental portions of his agenda on issues such as education, welfare, and taxes. Add the likelihood of a major-party presidential nomination to the list, and you have a governor who wields a sizable amount of power, even if it can’t be found in the state constitution.

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Explainer thanks Thad Beyle, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.