A New Era for NGA's Relations With Congress?

The National Governors Association had seen its influence on federal legislation decline in the past decade. But because of new leadership, things may be looking up.

Governors Terry McAuliffe, left, and Gary Herbert, giving the annual State of the States.
(AP/Susan Walsh)
The National Governors Association (NGA) has signaled a renewed sense of optimism that Congress, under new Republican leadership, will listen to governors more about federal legislation.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Republican chair and Democratic vice chair of the bipartisan organization, respectively, delivered the annual State of the States address at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

The NGA has seen its influence decline in the past decade with the rise of rival partisan groups that raise money for Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates. In 2014, Governing
detailed the struggles that the NGA and similar bipartisan groups representing states and localities have had in fulfilling their legislative agendas. 

Governors had long wanted to replace the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act to give states more oversight authority in education. They also pushed for a long-term transportation bill and sought the right to collect tax revenue from online transactions.

For more than a decade, governors' priorities resulted in no change. But things may be looking up.

In December, after Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan ascended to the role of House Speaker, Congress replaced the NCLB education law and passed its first major transportation bill in years. Earlier in the fall, Congress passed a budget bill that prevents the possibility of another sequester for at least two years. 

“I couldn’t be more overjoyed,” said McAuliffe. He and Herbert met with Ryan and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California on Wednesday. In McAuliffe’s words, “it was a lovefest.” 

Herbert, in his prepared remarks, called for a “restoration to the balance of power between the states and the federal government” and described recent changes in congressional leadership as “a real opportunity.” 

Herbert and McAuliffe's address comes about a month after the NGA hired a new executive director, Scott Pattison. Pattison held the top administrative position at the National Association of State Budget Officers for 14 years, and was once Virginia's budget director.

"This is not his first drive around the block," Herbert said about Pattison.

In an interview with Governing, Pattison said he hopes to raise the profile of the organization, not only in the eyes of Washington power brokers but also among governors themselves. Convincing governors who haven't been dues-paying members to get involved again "is an extremely high priority," he said. "I want to show them that membership is valuable." 

Toward that end, Pattison said NGA will be more aggressive about highlighting state initiatives and educating interested members about how they might replicate successful policies. In the past, NGA might have published a lengthy report about best practices only after months of study, but the group will now start to generate shorter, more timely briefs online.

The group will also expand efforts to educate federal policymakers and improve their perceptions of state governments. After all, states end up implementing much of the policy that's set and funded by Congress.

"We are not just another interest group," said Pattison. "We are part of the federal system." 

Still, one of the major challenges for NGA -- or any national bipartisan organization -- is that political polarization has made it difficult for members to coalesce around positions and then advocate with one voice to Congress. Red-state governors disagree with blue-state governors on a range of hot-button issues, from gun control to abortion rights to environmental regulation. 

Pattison acknowledged that partisan divides will remain a reality in 2016.

"Are we going to take a strong position on global warming? No."

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.