Contempt for Congress
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The nature of their jobs keeps governors in close touch with the moods of their states' voters. There's little insulation for them; constituents unload their gripes and grievances with few inhibitions.
That's why I was so struck by the tone of the conversations among the governors of both parties who gathered here over the weekend for their annual summer conference. The common theme in interviews and informal comments was one of utter disdain for Congress.
Never mind that most of the governors are Republicans and that Republicans control the House and Senate. Never mind that a decade ago, when Republican control of Congress was still brand-new, the governors of both parties believed that the golden age of federal-state relations had arrived. Back then, with former governor Bill Clinton in the White House, with Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House, and with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole eager to enlist help from governors for his 1996 presidential campaign, the governors found the welcome mat spread for them everywhere in Washington.
In short order, they saw Congress pass, and Clinton sign, a historic welfare reform bill based on models developed in Wisconsin and other states. Legislation on education, health care and other domestic fields reflected other agendas that came out of the National Governors Association (NGA). Congress even promised it would stop passing bills that required extra spending by the states without reimbursement. It was nirvana, the governors thought.
Today, Republicans still dominate the statehouses and Congress, and another former governor, George Bush, sits in the White House. But relationships between the governors and Washington are poisonous.
Not a single figure from Capitol Hill was invited to address the meeting that concluded here on Monday. If anyone had come, his ears would have been burning.
Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a Republican and the retiring chairman of the NGA, set the tone. "What upsets us," he said in an interview, "is the same thing that frustrates our voters. Whatever problem you're concerned about, all you see in Washington is gridlock."
Janet Napolitano of Arizona, the Democrat who succeeded Huckabee on Monday as the NGA chairman, echoed his words. "They're just not getting it done," she said of Capitol Hill. "Immigration is the biggest issue in my state. A million people are marching in the streets. States are spending hundreds of millions trying to cope with the influx. So they pass two bills, and they won't even go into a meeting room to put them together. It's ridiculous!"
The refusal of the Republican leadership to call a conference to reconcile the competing House and Senate immigration bills is one symbol of what Huckabee calls a "dysfunctional" Congress. In the states, he said, governors of both parties have learned to work with each other -- and across partisan lines at home -- to get things done.
Not so in Washington. Mitt Romney, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, said his wife, Ann, has likened the spectacle of Congress to "two guys in a canoe that is headed for the falls, and all they do is hit each other with their paddles."
Romney said that considering what has been happening on energy prices, health care and other worries, "the bickering is becoming more and more dangerous because the current is sweeping us toward the falls."
To take one final example, New Mexico Democrat Bill Richardson said, "Congress has gone from unresponsive to hopeless. On everything from the minimum wage to immigration to energy, they've just given up. No one expects anything from them."
Why has it taken this turn? The governors' sense is that Bush is so preoccupied with Iraq and other international crises that he gives short shrift to Congress and domestic problems. The White House made no visible presence at this meeting.
As for Congress, Huckabee blames budget pressures and a kind of political myopia for the frequent actions that he says damage the states and distort the federal system. Far from honoring the pledge to stop passing unfunded mandates, Congress has socked state and local governments with major new obligations -- such as requiring motor vehicle bureaus to check for citizen status -- while treating them merely as "satellite offices" of the federal government, Huckabee complains.
But beyond these turf battles, the biggest indictment of Congress is simply that it is paralyzed. The sense that voters see Washington as gridlocked is one factor fueling the hopes of the governors eyeing the presidency in 2008 -- men such as Romney, Richardson, Huckabee, Iowa Democrat Tom Vilsack and New York Republican George Pataki. All of them are gambling that a frustrated electorate will turn to an outsider for help.