Four Decades Strong: The 1980s | Big Hair, Big President, Big Shoulders
By Karl Kurtz
It may have been the big-hair decade in fashion, but politically, the 1980s belonged to Ronald Reagan (a bit of a big-hair guy himself). He and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, occupied the White House for all but the first year of the decade.
The 1980s followed a period of tight state budgets, when almost all new program growth was “through federal grants, in response to federal—not state—priorities,” reported this magazine in October 1980. Congress had just created the U.S. Department of Education, and NCSL was instrumental in getting the legislation amended to ensure the new department would not “increase the responsibility of the federal government over education nor diminish the responsibility for education which is reserved to states.”
In 1981 the country was in the beginning of a severe national recession, a citizen-led tax revolt and a general backlash against social welfare policies. California’s 1978 Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes, was spreading and by 1982, 13 states had adopted their own tax or spending limits.
Enter President Reagan.
In his quest to reduce the growth of government spending, federal taxes, and federal regulations, his administration sharply cut grants to state and local governments. Congress, too, cut out the state share of general revenue sharing in 1981 (although the local government share continued until 1986).
There was talk of a “new federalism,” devolving authority from the federal government back to the states with several proposals and numerous debates about the states swapping roles with the feds to run welfare, food stamps and Medicaid. In the end, though, the new federalism was mostly about new federal cutbacks, leaving states with the responsibility for picking up (or not) the former federal programs.
Politically, the 1980s was an era of divided government. Just as Republican President Reagan shared power with a Democratic Congress, at least half the states’ governors faced a legislature controlled, at least partially, by the other party. Perhaps because of this divided control, the decade was a period of moderation in public policymaking.
By the early 1980s, Republicans had overcome their landslide losses in the post-Watergate elections of 1974 and 1976, while the Democratic Party’s hold on the South was loosening. By the end of the decade, Republicans had increased their influence across the South and held 26 percent of the seats, compared to just 17 percent in 1980.
It was a path-breaking decade for women as well. Sandra Day O’Connor, former majority leader of the Arizona Senate, became the first female Supreme Court Justice in 1981. U.S. Representative Geraldine Ferraro from New York—the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1988—became the first woman on the ballot for either major party in a presidential election.
When legislative sessions opened in 1980, women made up only 10 percent of all state legislators. By the end of the decade they had increased their portion to 17 percent and more were getting elected to leadership positions. Five women served as presiding officers during the decade. That’s not many, but it signaled a significant change, since not even one served in the 1970s.
Policy Déjà Vu
The policy issues of the 1980s sound eerily familiar 30 years later. Redistricting issues revolved around the contiguity, compactness, minority representation and competitiveness of legislative districts. Although illegal, marijuana was being taxed by several states with the hope that tax evasion could aid in prosecuting drug traffickers. Educators were looking to improve school finance, bilingual education and teacher equality. Gambling and lotteries were expanding. Rural areas were concerned about a lack of health care manpower. States were looking for ways to control health care costs. The benefits of energy conservation were being touted. All this and more while a landmark study by President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education found the country to be “A Nation at Risk” because of failing public schools.
For the legislative institution, the decade was more about consolidation than innovation, a period of building on the many leaps taken to modernize during the 1960s and ’70s. The most noteworthy changes were the spread of legislative fiscal offices in virtually every state and the emergence of program review and evaluation offices in many.
Computers were changing the world of work, including the work of legislatures. Electronic voting systems moved from electro-mechanical systems to computer-based systems that could also record votes, and store and transfer information to chamber journals. Online bill drafting, linked to bill status and statutory retrieval systems, emerged as legislatures moved beyond mainframe computers.
But while computers increased during the 1980s, state legislators did not. The decade began with a total of 7,562 state lawmakers but ended with 7,461. A few states added legislative seats but mor e reduced; the biggest cuts being in Illinois (59) and Massachusetts (80). The actions were guided by the belief that a smaller legislature would be more conducive to developing good public policy.
Encounters With Presidents and Wannabes
NCSL’s D.C. office increased in influence and grew as the voice of the states during the 1980s, enjoying remarkable access to our national leaders. The Legislative Summit (called the Annual Meeting) grew larger and larger crowds and impressive speakers.
During Reagan’s first term, the seven NCSL legislators and staff officers met with the president in the Cabinet Room of the White House to talk about Reagan’s vision of federalism. Patrick Flahaven, then secretary of the Minnesota Senate and staff vice chair of NCSL, recalls how the president “walked around the table, shaking hands with each of us. I had grown a beard, which was unusual in those days, and when he got to me he gave me a quizzical look, like I might be an interloper. So I played it low like a good staffer, and just listened.”
Flahaven’s big-hair beard must not have done too much damage since Reagan spoke at NCSL’s 1982 annual meeting in Atlanta—the only sitting president ever to do so. NCSL’s then-President Ross Doyen (R), president of the Kansas Senate, didn’t hide his excitement at getting to fly up to D.C. from the meeting to accompany the president to Atlanta aboard Air Force One.
Later in the decade, former North Dakota Senator David Nething (R), president of NCSL in 1985-86, recalls that the officers met so often with Reagan on proposed federalism changes that the White House receptionist got to know him on sight.
Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton spoke at the 1987 annual meeting in Indianapolis—that is, once he got past a particularly tough young NCSL staffer. Corina Eckl, currently NCSL’s director of state services, was then an eager new staffer assigned the job of ticket collector at the door to the plenary luncheon. When three rather large men tried to enter, she asked for their meal tickets. “We don’t have meal tickets,” she remembers the one man who was clearly in charge saying. “If you don’t have tickets, I can’t let you in,” Eckl stated (twice).
“Little lady, if you don’t let us in an awful lot of people are going to be disappointed. I am Bill Clinton, the governor of Arkansas, the luncheon speaker.” Needless to say, the “little lady” stepped aside to let the gentlemen through so the crowd could hear what the future president had to say.
Another memorable moment from the 1980s was when Geraldine Ferraro spoke just a few days after Walter Mondale selected her to run for vice president. NCSL’s then-president, William Passannante (D), New York assemblyman, proudly introduced his fellow New Yorker with some inspiring words about how Ferraro’s nomination freed every young girl in the country to envision herself president of the United States. But his ending surprised a few when he borrowed a line from the nascent gay politics of his Greenwich Village district and bellowed into the microphone, “It’s time for state legislatures to come out of the closet!”
Innovation and Change at NCSL
International exchanges expanded in the 1980s as well, with study tours to Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, Great Britain, India, Israel, Russia and Taiwan.
One of the most enduring exchanges began in 1987 with the German Partnership of Parliaments, an organization of parliamentarians from the German states focused on building stronger relations with North America. That exchange has continued every year since. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. Cause and effect? Of course not directly, but the build-up of social, cultural and political exchanges like the NCSL/POP program contributed to breaking down the Iron Curtain.
NCSL was not immune from the cutbacks in federal grants and contracts the states were experiencing in the early 1980s. The organization had built up a substantial staff in the late 1970s, especially in the areas of renewable energy and conservation. But between 1981 and 1982, NCSL had to lay off 21 staff who had lost their federal funding. It was during this time the Foundation for State Legislatures was launched with the goal of strengthening state legislatures through a public-private dialogue.
State Legislatures magazine, the organization’s flagship publication, underwent changes as well. A whole new editorial staff brought a renewed emphasis on unbiased writing and coverage of legislatures, a refreshed look with a modern design and flag, and some innovative new departments. And in 1982, after much discussion, the magazine started accepting paid advertising.
In 1983, NCSL joined with its sister organizations to form the State and Local Legal Center to strengthen advocacy of state and local governments at the U.S. Supreme Court. The center has endured and has had a significant impact on federalism decisions by the high court. You can read about its current efforts starting on page 29.
And finally, it was during this big-hair, big-president decade that William T. Pound became NCSL’s big-shouldered executive director. He had been on the staff of NCSL from its outset in 1975, and succeeded Earl Mackey, the founding director, in 1987.
Stay-tuned, the “Networking Nineties” are coming your way this June.
Karl Kurtz is director of NCSL’s Trust for Representative Democracy and has been with NCSL since its inception. He claims he’s never had big hair, but what about a big beard?