Washington needs wonkdom”A center of wonkdom,” former member Bill Clinton called the National Governors Association at its centennial meeting last weekend. It’s a description that hits the nail on the head. In a welcome relief from the politics of blaming the other party for the inaction that infests Washington, the men and women who occupy the nation’s statehouses are noticeably more interested in finding solutions, many of them wonderfully wonky, to the problems facing their citizens.
By: Steve and Cokie Roberts, The Jamestown Sun
PHILADELPHIA — ”A center of wonkdom,” former member Bill Clinton called the National Governors Association at its centennial meeting last weekend. It’s a description that hits the nail on the head. In a welcome relief from the politics of blaming the other party for the inaction that infests Washington, the men and women who occupy the nation’s statehouses are noticeably more interested in finding solutions, many of them wonderfully wonky, to the problems facing their citizens.
The governors and former governors assembled to mark their organization’s 100th birthday were in an understandably self-congratulatory mood. Findings by the Pew Center in May, which show a federal-government favorability rating of 37 percent compared to the 59 percent who have positive impressions of state government, gave rise to a conversation about the differences.
“I left a prestigious job as a member of the country’s board of directors,” said former Idaho governor and current Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, referring to his years as a senator, “to become the CEO of a sovereign state.” Every year in his State of the State address, he added, the governor had to have a game plan because “governors are practitioners.”
“Governors are builders,” chimed in North Carolina Democrat and former Gov. Jim Hunt, “constantly out there recruiting commerce.” Agreeing, Iowa Democrat and former Gov. Tom Vilsack concluded, “Governors succeed because they create a positive framework, something for people to rally around.”
Though many of the participants had also spent time in Washington, or now serve in the federal government, the nation’s capital received a good deal of criticism from the men and women who are or have been their state’s chief executives. And the complaints are strikingly nonpartisan, with both Democrats and Republicans insisting that Congress and the president “need to listen to us.”
Moving into a discussion of specific policy issues, it’s easy to see why actions — or lack of them — coming out of Washington rankle. On the subject of health care, in the absence of federal policy, the governors shared the practical and imaginative solutions they are coming up with to move toward coverage for all of their citizens. In Delaware, for example, Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner uses tobacco-settlement money to offer free screening for common diseases and free treatment for those diagnosed. And she’s recently signed a law requiring schools to provide the state’s health department with a list of children receiving free or reduced-price lunches to see whether they are also eligible for free or reduced-price health care.
A similar program in Connecticut instituted by Republican Gov. Jodi Rell includes a checkbox for health insurance on the forms families fill out for their school children. Eligible kids without insurance are then steered into the state’s program. Rell has also helped establish a state health-insurance plan for adults.
But in order for state governments to extend their coverage, they often must obtain exemptions from federal Medicaid rules. Former governor of Utah and current Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt conceded that the waiver process can be difficult and “dramatic.”
The state versus federal role on the subject of education has been particularly tense, especially since No Child Left Behind imposed mandates without providing the money to implement them. But the law passed because so many schools, long the purview of state government, were failing to educate their children. President Clinton challenged the governors to see whether they could agree on a national accountability standard for schools, and they promised to give it a try.
One place where they already agree: Early-childhood education makes all the difference in a student’s future ability to learn. And one governor after another talked with great excitement about programs they’ve put in place, often with the help of the business community, to get little children and their parents into some sort of school setting. Wonkdom, indeed.
Agreement on another issue — energy policy — eluded these “practitioners.” That’s because their interests are too divergent. Coal-producing states can’t agree with car-producing states, can’t agree with corn-producing states, can’t agree with oil-patch states. Increasing mining, decreasing emissions, encouraging ethanol, expanding drilling, subsidizing solar and investing in nuclear all remain energy arguments for a national government to resolve.
Balancing the differences among states into a compromise that serves the national interest is exactly the role the federal government was designed to play. We just wish that we saw more builders and persuaders in the Congress and the administration instead of blamers and posturers. A little wonkdom would go a long way.
Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.