Govs' Anger With Feds Boils Over
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
CHARLESTON, S.C. - As they approach crucial November elections, governors from both parties blame the Republican-led Congress and White House for a widening chasm between the federal government and the states.
The latest provocation, cited by governors here at an annual gathering of the National Governors Association (NGA), is a provision passed recently by the U.S. House of Representatives that would give the president greater authority to mobilize state-based National Guard units without consent from the governors.
Governors also vented frustrations at Capitol Hill over illegal immigration, high gasoline prices and new driver's license regulations, and in conversations said the relationship between states and the federal government has deteriorated since they were last elected.
"I think you're going to find a universal disdain among governors, Democrat and Republican, with this attitude that the federal government continually has ... that the states are mere satellites of a centralized federal authority," outgoing NGA Chairman Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) said at the meeting's opening press conference Aug. 5. "To be blunt, I sometimes wonder if people in Washington ever passed ninth-grade civics," said Huckabee, who is considering a bid for the White House in 2008.
While carping about Congress is nothing new, governors' complaints carried a new intensity as nationwide polls also show voters are dissatisfied with federal lawmakers — over the war in Iraq and some of the same issues that concern governors. November's elections will test whether that mood infects state-level races, in which 36 states will elect governors and 46 will choose new state legislators. All 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 U.S. Senate seats also will be decided Nov. 7.
"The national mood is pretty sour out there towards Congress ... and I think it's getting worse, because people are just getting frustrated. They recognize the tremendous needs, and they don't see anybody stepping forward or a party stepping forward to getting it done," said former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, a Republican and four-term governor of Wisconsin, who spoke to the NGA Aug. 5 about reforming the nation's health care system.
David Broder, a longtime political correspondent for The Washington Post, said in an Aug. 4 speech in Columbus, Ohio, that widespread discontent could have an effect not only on congressional races this year, but also state-level elections.
"I think the net result of this is we're going to see a lot of turnover in Congress and probably in state offices as well," Broder told the annual convention of Capitolbeat, an association of statehouse reporters and editors.
Governors' opinions varied about whether voter anger at federal lawmakers would carry over to state candidates in November, but they were nearly unified in their frustration with Washington, D.C.
Governors' most recent complaint is language in a defense authorization bill, recently passed by the U.S. House, that would allow the president to mobilize National Guard troops without consulting governors. Part-time soldiers in state Guard units serve at the direction of the governor except when called to federal duty, such as the war in Iraq.
"This is 230-plus years governors have had control of their National Guard and have done a good job. Now all of a sudden, there are one or two lines in a bill that no one has debated and no one has discussed to take that authority away under certain circumstances," said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D). Governors vowed to convince the U.S. Senate to reject the provision.
After three years of record-level Guard deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and last year's devastating Gulf Coast hurricanes, state leaders are concerned about their ability to rely on Guard soldiers and their heavy equipment, much of it left overseas, in a natural disaster.
Congress' inability to reform the nation's legal and illegal immigration policies also was criticized by governors. More than half of states have passed laws to try to deal with illegal aliens, including denying non-emergency services and imposing sanctions for companies that employ undocumented workers. But border enforcement is a federal job.
"As a border state, this has been a problem that has festered far too long, and ultimately can only be solved by Congress," said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), who along with Gov. Bill Richardson (D) declared a state of emergency over illegal immigration in 2005. Arizona is the biggest illegal gateway for immigrants in the Southwest, accounting for two-thirds of all border arrests last year. In May, the president ordered more than 6,000 Guard troops to the border with Mexico to assist federal agents.
The price of gasoline, now averaging more than $3 a gallon, and the nation's dependence on foreign oil also came under fire.
"Ultimately people ask the question: 'Well, where was the planning? How did we get to this situation? We thought we had people in D.C. who were big thinkers who were planning five years in advance.' It turns out there wasn't a plan, and we got here because no one was looking into the future," said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D).
Schweitzer is one of several governors trying to encourage development of oil alternatives, such as synthetic diesel that would be made from Montana's abundant coal supplies.
The governors' remarks over the weekend are the latest round of complaints about federal incursions into state business. Governors and state legislators have railed about the 2005 federal REAL ID act, which would preempt how states issue driver's licenses and make state motor vehicle departments verify the citizenship status of drivers. The National Conference of State Legislatures has estimated the changes will cost states an additional $500 million to $700 million by 2010.
States have had some recent success in changing federal policies. Faced with the fast-rising costs of Medicaid, the federal and state partnership to provide health coverage to low-income and disabled citizens, states lobbied Congress and this year won more flexibility in how they run the program. The changes will save an estimated $6.9 billion.
State lawmakers' steady drumbeat of criticism also has forced several changes in the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to annually test students in mathematics and reading and threatens sanctions for states, districts and schools that don't meet annual benchmarks for improving scores.
Not all governors see the level of tensions between states and the federal government as unusual.Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R), who served six years in the U.S. House before becoming governor in 2002, said: "I can't ever think of a period when we had an election that we didn't have a myriad of different things to talk about and a lot of problems going on."