Partisan “Bipartisanship”

Inside the National Governors’ Association

by D. Dowd Muska, NPRI Research Analyst


In 1908 a group of governors gathered in Washington to discuss conservation issues with President Theodore Roosevelt. After the meeting the governors decided to create an organization to "come together to discuss their mutual concerns and act collectively." Thus, the National Governors’ Association (NGA) was born.

The NGA calls itself "the only bipartisan national organization of, by, and for the nation’s governors." All 50 governors are members, as are the chief executives of U.S. territories and possessions. Members, through the Association, "identify priority issues and deal collectively with issues of public policy and governance at both the national and state levels." Nevada Governor Bob Miller, a Democrat, currently serves as chairman of the NGA. Ohio Governor George Voinovich, a Republican, serves as vice chairman. The chairmanship rotates between members of each party — Voinovich will replace Miller next year.

The Association’s stated missions are, among other things, to provide "a forum for governors to exchange views and experiences among themselves," "assistance in solving state-focused problems," and "information on state innovations." That kind of amorphous terminology dominates its publications, so perhaps a clarification is called for: the NGA is a lobbying organization.

In fact, it’s the largest state lobbying organization in the country. With a permanent presence in Washington for 30 years and a 1997 budget of $13.2 million, the organization has the experience and resources to engage in a wide range of activities.

The Association is run by a nine-member Executive Committee composed of governors elected by the full NGA membership. Both the chairman and vice chairman are voting members, while the chairmen and vice chairmen of standing committees serve in a non-voting capacity. As chairman, Miller has the power to assign duties to committees and create task forces to examine pressing issues.

The Executive Committee oversees the NGA’s Legal Affairs Committee which examines Supreme Court rulings (and files amicus briefs that reflect NGA positions), and the Finance Committee which keeps tabs on the Association’s financial status.

There are three standing committees which "examine and develop" policy in the areas of economic development, human resources and natural resources. All three committees have staff advisory councils — made up of gubernatorial, not NGA staff — that do much of the "groundwork" in developing Association positions on issues. In addition, each governor appoints a member of his or her staff to serve as a state contact with the NGA. The staff member receives all NGA materials and "is an important point of contact between the governor’s office in the state capital and the NGA." So, in fact, many gubernatorial employees devote significant time to NGA-only work.

Unlike most public policy centers or lobbying groups, the NGA derives the majority of its funding from taxpayers. The Association receives over 61 percent of its income from state and federal government sources. For fiscal year 1997, Nevadans will chip in $46,200. Since state "dues" are assessed based on population, Nevada’s neighbor California contributes $133,800. (Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas contribute the same amount.) State governments contribute over $4 million in total, and federal grants account for almost another $4 million. So whether they choose to or not, taxpayers fund almost two-thirds of the NGA’s annual budget.

The NGA makes up the difference from corporate and foundation donations. In a system somewhat akin to the "soft money" scheme used effectively — if not ethically — by the Clinton campaign, corporate chieftains participate in the NGA’s "Corporate Fellows Program," which requires a yearly gift of $12,000. For that sum, CEOs get remarkable access to governors through "roundtable discussions," "committee and policy meetings," "private seminars," and "special events at the Governors’ winter and annual meetings." One NGA critic summed up the Corporate Fellows Program this way: "Your level of money determines your level of access."

In addition to deep-pocketed corporate leaders, the Joyce, Casey, Kaiser, Mott and Carnegie Foundations contribute to the NGA. "Liberal foundations," noted Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) Chief Economist Peter J. Ferrara, "think the work of the NGA is highly valuable to their causes."

At even a quick glance, the inherent contradictions of the National Governors’ Association are obvious. For one thing, it is highly dubious that any single organization can speak for the nation’s disparate governors. Libertarians, social conservatives, "new Democrats," traditional leftists, and middle-of-the-road governors cannot possibly have a single voice. While minor common interests no doubt exist between them — finding ways to better communicate with federal officials, for example — the NGA’s claim to represent all governors appears weak at best.

The NGA also holds that governors can "influence national policy by acting collectively," but this statement simply does not square with reality either. Perhaps this was best evidenced last year during the debate over congressional attempts to reform the welfare system. Leading Republican governors overwhelmingly favored the bill that ultimately passed while Democrats generally opposed the measure.

Along the same lines, the NGA’s stated goal to serve as a "forum for Governors to exchange views" cannot be taken seriously. Through NGA rap sessions, is a governor who owes much of his political life to the support of teachers’ unions likely to convert and work to establish a statewide school voucher program? Will a governor who supports gun ownership will be persuaded of the benefits of firearm prohibitions by the eloquent chief executive of another state? Not likely, at least not in today’s political climate.

In fact, one Washington insider who attended several of the private meetings contended the gatherings were "completely run by the staff" of the NGA. He further characterized the gubernatorial get-togethers as "not productive." Apparently, governors spend most of the meetings commiserating over common gripes. "Behind closed doors they just bitch about things," the participant quipped.

But Governor Miller’s Press Secretary, Richard Urey, has a different take on the organization his boss currently chairs. Urey defended the NGA as a "uniquely effective tool." Specifically, he meant the NGA’s think tank, the Center for Best Practices. A tax-exempt 501(c)(3) corporation, the Center has an ambitious mandate. Its duties include: "identify[ing] and shar[ing] information about states’ best practices," "provid[ing] customized technical assistance to governors on policies and programs," and "help[ing] governors establish public-private partnerships on best practice opportunities."

The Center studies five issues: economic development, education, employment and social services, health policy and natural resources.

Two member governors from each political party as well as the past chairman of the NGA oversee the Center. The five-member board makes recommendations to the Executive Committee and approves grants, contracts and the Center’s annual budget.

According to Urey, NGA policy analysts are "competent people" who provide "invaluable service" to governors. Perhaps Urey meant they are invaluable to a governor of Miller’s political persuasion. Ample evidence exists to illustrate that the NGA staff — permanent, entrenched bureaucrats whose jobs are not subject to the vicissitudes of elections — have a predominately liberal voice. NGA critics — and they are not hard to find — contend that at its core the organization is a mouthpiece for the left. "They’re not even moderates, they’re left of center," claimed one frustrated Washington researcher, who cannot understand why an organization that claims to represent states’ best interests seems to defer in every way possible to the federal government.

Grover Norquist, a conservative scholar and member of NPRI’s Advisory Board, offered this assessment: "The NGA has been unhelpful in the struggle to move power and resources away from Washington." The voices of privately-financed public policy foundations that advocate a devolution of federal power, argues Norquist, are drowned out by the substantial coverage given to "the government-funded and government-supporting NGA."

While Urey defended the NGA as a "very centrist organization," the facts indicate otherwise. Under a clever veneer of bipartisanship, NGA staffers produce research and policy papers sympathetic to traditional liberal positions. While many member governors support concepts such as devolution and privatization of government services, their ideology is not reflected by the Association’s staff members who, according to one NGA critic, "[have] not changed in 12 years."

Some who have served on the staffs of conservative governors believe their bosses were duped, more or less, by the NGA staff. According to one, most conservative governors feel they must "have a seat at the table" in the nation’s capital, and thus are willing to overlook the ideology of the NGA in return for access to the organization’s resources. (The Association’s public relations department, apparently, has the ability to "maximize media coverage for governors when they’re in Washington," and publicize "governors’ testimony, positions, and activities through news releases and media advisories.")

Even when dedicated, free-market Republican governors assume the NGA chairmanship, the NGA staff "wait them out," the insider claimed, since the chairman will only hold the position for one year. "No chairman is in control long enough to really change the organization," wrote ATR’s Ferrara. "That leaves daily control in the hands of the NGA staff, which is overwhelmingly liberal."

At least in its literature, the NGA pays lip service to the concepts of federalism and devolution — for example, one stated goal of the CBP is to "explore and develop approaches to transfer responsibility from the federal government." But for the most part, official Association literature is laced with wonkish terms such as "stewardship," "investments," and "public-private partnerships." These are little more than code words for "friendlier" government programs — the kind of language political uber-operative Dick Morris tests in focus groups for later use by "new Democrats" like Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

"Unfortunately, … the National Governors’ Association [has] not succeeded in promoting an independent voice," stated Douglas Seay and Wesley Smith, in the Federalism chapter of the Heritage Foundation’s publication Issues ’96: The Candidate’s Briefing Book. The authors report that due to frustration with NGA impotence, two governors, Mike Leavitt of Utah and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, went so far as to organize an alternative, which they named the Conference of the States.

"The NGA is like any other … bureaucracy … they’re completely risk averse …they don’t do anything — they’re not looking for opportunities," said one Washington insider, who dealt with the NGA staff while working for a governor. The NGA itself all but admits to its timidity. In descriptions of its activities, the NGA proudly claims to work within existing federal systems — Medicaid, Environmental Protection Agency regulations, and the like — rather than researching and publicizing bold and innovative alternatives. Many conservative and libertarian public policy solutions, such as school voucher programs and medical savings accounts, are missing from NGA policy prescriptions.

Perhaps no issue illuminates the bias of NGA staffers better than welfare. During the early years of the Reagan presidency, the NGA fought the administration’s attempts at welfare reform. Robert Carleson, Assistant to the President for Policy Development, stated the staff of the NGA "tried to sabotage Reagan’s efforts to devolve welfare to the states."

In 1988, an NGA-shaped welfare reform bill passed by Congress failed to achieve the lofty goals set by its supporters. The reform measure promised to replace welfare with work, but the work requirements were illusory. Welfare rolls skyrocketed, and today only a minuscule portion of welfare recipients were required to work.

With the NGA, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Last spring, in the midst of the most recent welfare reform debate, the NGA put forth another reform plan. The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, one of the leading social policy analysts in the country, discovered the NGA proposal closely mirrored the reform package offered by the Clinton administration.

"Unfortunately," Rector wrote, "[The] proposal, crafted by NGA bureaucrats and borrowing significant elements from president Clinton’s welfare reform schemes, is another blueprint for flawed reform." Rector’s lengthy analysis showed that the NGA plan was faulty in four main areas: it abandoned the goal of reducing illegitimacy; it eliminated all work requirements; it had "a pervasive anti-marriage bias," and, it encouraged states to pursue the least efficient strategies for reducing welfare dependence.

"The rise in illegitimacy and the collapse of marriage," wrote Rector, "do not even merit a concerned comment, let alone aggressive policies, from the NGA."

An examination of recent NGA press releases further illustrates the NGA’s ideological bent. While one can find some evidence of free-market advocacy — a recent release approved of the deregulation of electrical utilities — NGA public relations efforts more often trumpet the expansion of both state and federal power. For example, in early February the organization announced it was "joining forces" with the Clinton administration to spur technological innovation through "coordinating federal and state resources." "The governors," claimed the release, "have been seeking such a federal and state partnership for years." In March, the PR department spread the word about new ways governors are "reaching out" — slick term, that — to children without health insurance. The release listed a number of NGA-approved methods to cover more children, including "expanding Medicaid beyond federal requirements."

Norquist, in his capacity as president of Americans for Tax Reform, recently launched a campaign to de-fund the NGA. In a letter sent to all Republican governors he wrote, "As you work to protect the taxpayers of your states, I urge you to remove the annual funding for this taxpayer subsidized lobby in Washington, D.C. that has actively worked against federalism and moving decisions from Washington to the state level."

His appeal will surely find few sympathizers at the governor’s mansion in Carson City. And to be sure, Nevadans have every right to overlook the actual work of the NGA, and focus instead on the exposure their state gains from the Miller chairmanship. It’s a claim — albeit a somewhat shaky one — that Urey made. In his words, the governor’s NGA post "adds attention and publicity to … Nevada," and "lays a foundation for future respect for the state." This summer’s upcoming NGA meeting in Las Vegas will grant further credence to that view.

But clearly, Nevadans who care about questionable uses of their tax dollars need to be aware of the National Governors’ Association. In a way, citizens of the Silver State — most of whom know little or nothing about the NGA — pay for the organization in two ways: dues to cover Nevada’s "share" are paid from the state’s General Fund, while the governor and members of his staff devote considerable time and energy to NGA projects.

Far from serving as a strictly bipartisan "forum" for "exchanges," the NGA does indeed have a partisan agenda. That agenda is antithetical to many Nevadans, as well as many member governors of the NGA itself — and the Association operates, for the most part, on the public’s dime. Notwithstanding the "national exposure" Nevada gains from the Miller chairmanship, many Nevadans may decide $46,200 and a sizable chunk of their governor’s attention are more than they are willing to donate to the National Governors’ Association.


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