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Bipartisan Meeting of Governors Faces Partisanship and Presidential Politics

President Barack Obama answers questions from the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room of the White House.

President Barack Obama answers questions from the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room of the White House, Feb. 22, 2010. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza. PD.

Over the weekend, the annual meeting of the National Governor’s Association was held in Virginia and the expansion of federal programs was just as controversial this year as it has been in previous years.

First, some history. The National Governor’s Association was established in 1908 after President Theodore Roosevelt called a Conference of Governors to discuss conservation issues. The meeting included the nine Supreme Court Justices, biologists, ornithologists and advocates of forestry science in an unprecedented Blue Ribbon Commission on natural resource management. Roosevelt said that the purpose of the conference was so “this Nation as a whole should earnestly desire and strive to leave to the next generation the National honor unstained and the National resources unexhausted.” In the opening session of the Conference of Governors on May 13, 1908, President Roosevelt warned:

“We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources, and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers…One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight. We have to as a nation exercise foresight for this nation in the future; and if we do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future.”

The Conference of Governors was the result of the President’s belief that increased interstate cooperation for conservation was necessary; states and the federal government had to work together in order to conserve the nation’s natural resources. However, many governors and some of Roosevelt’s critics thought the president cared more about the natural environment than the Constitution, limited government or private property, and the president’s agenda was just another means for expanding federal regulatory power. Yet the conference proved beneficial beyond just the issue of conservation. Following the conference, governors decided to form an association through which they could come together to discuss their mutual concerns and act collectively. The annual meetings of governors have thus often been used as a forum to introduce policy ideas at the state level and to debate issues of national importance. For example, in 1930, then-governor of New York Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first prominent political leader to advocate unemployment insurance at the Conference of Governors in Salt Lake City.

One of the key sources of national debate and controversy at the 2012 annual meeting of the National Governor’s Association centered upon Medicaid and Healthcare exchanges. The meeting revealed a partisan divide in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. While the Supreme Court’s ruling made the adoption by states of Medicaid expansion optional, Democratic governors at the meeting appeared more willing to adopt it and other provisions of the ACA, while Republican governors were more leery of it. Delaware Democratic Governor Jack Markell said, “We've taken a hard look, and we have the opportunity to significantly expand the number of people in Delaware who have care. There's sufficient federal resources to pay for it. We think this is a good deal for the people of our state.” Meanwhile, Nebraska Republican Governor Dave Heineman said, “Until you can prove to me it won't result in cuts to public schools in our state, to the University of Nebraska or state colleges or community colleges, or increases in taxes, then I'm not ready to move in that direction.” The hedging and partisan differences over the Medicaid expansion appear part and parcel of election year politics that includes an ongoing partisan struggle over the scope and extent of federal government powers. And yet, in several ways, federalism appears to be alive and well given the Supreme Court’s ruling and recent news regarding President Obama’s issuance of waivers to states regarding some of the most onerous provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Presidential politics dominated the meeting this year in other ways as well with President Obama campaigning in Virginia over the weekend. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker both criticized the President on the economic recovery and on the Obama campaign’s negative ads about Romney's private-sector record. In addition, Governor Scott Walker offered this election-year advice to Romney:

Coming into Wisconsin, coming into Iowa, coming into other states like that, for him to do well the ‘R’ next to his name has to stand more than just for ‘Republican’ — it has to stand for reformer. If people view him as a reformer, willing to take on both the economic and fiscal crisis our nation faces, I think voters in swing states like Wisconsin will listen… They’d also like to hear what he’s going to do to tackle the fiscal crisis our country’s facing.

Given the partisan divides that emerged over Medicaid and healthcare and the use of the conference as a platform for partisan critiques of presidential politics and policies, it’s somewhat ironic that both Republican and Democratic governors at the conference complained about the partisan rancor that roils national politics and paralyzes good policy-making. Regardless of the partisan politics that marks the presidential election year, the bipartisan annual meeting of governors remains an important component of debating intergovernmental challenges related to policy development and implementation.

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