This week, the audience at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Agenda Setters Series event witnessed a moment I wish 300 million other Americans could experience: pragmatism arriving in Washington in the form of state legislators-turned-governors-turned-senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Mike Rounds (R-SD).
On display was a shining example of how shared values, shared friendship and shared purpose are beginning to enable our system to govern.
Two moments of levity in a wide-ranging and deep-digging discussion illustrated why the ascension of these thoughtful politicians—and eight others who have formed a Senate Governors’ Caucus—brings hope for a more bipartisan, problem-solving approach to leadership.
Sen. Rounds described how Republican colleagues pushed him to run for Senate. Former Sen. Mike Johanns encouraged him to come meet some legislators: “You’re going to find that some of them are… normal.”
Later, as Sen. Manchin described how debt reduction was being stymied by no-tax pledges—with Republicans arguing that closing loopholes could be interpreted as revenue increases—Sen. Rounds protested, “I never said that.”
To which Manchin gently responded, “I know you didn’t, buddy. That’s why you’re here.”
The two legislators are indeed here to restore the sense of normalcy and good management that comes from being successful state chief executives. The pair contrasted their old and new jobs in similar fashion. Exuded Sen. Manchin, “As governor… I couldn’t wait to get up (in the morning); I didn’t want to go to bed at night. I felt good every day. If I made a mistake I could fix it. If somebody needed help, I could help them. If it needed changed, we could change it. Then you come here and it’s a whole different pace.”
“Working as a governor is the greatest job in the world. Every day you get up and you’ve got something you’ve got to get done,” Sen. Rounds elaborated. “I would tell people: ‘Why would anyone want to go to Washington, D.C.? That place is dysfunctional… they do a lot of talking, but nobody cares about results.’”
Yet these leaders clearly do care. Space doesn’t permit an in-depth discussion of the common ground they covered, but some highlights of our discussion included:
- Calls for a regulatory review process similar to those in their states. “The true legislators today are regulators who have never been elected,” insisted Sen. Rounds, who related how county and state officials had told him that pending waterway rules would keep them from trimming weeds and maintaining ditches on highways. For Sen. Manchin, a congressional review panel would ensure rules reflect legislative intent—“you should not be able to regulate what we did not legislate”—and would make Congress less risk-averse in legislating. Sen. Rounds pointed out that the resulting “give-and-take” between branches would provide a better rule-making process.
- Predictions of brighter prospects—based on cooperative approaches at the committee level—for a bipartisan, long-term highway bill that would facilitate state-level planning and more efficient spending. Insisted Sen. Rounds, “Rather than having the money we do have going into reports and analysis, let’s put it into steel and concrete.” Sen. Manchin expressed dismay that, despite the efforts of governors who called for more infrastructure investment, too much of the 2009 stimulus package had gone into “propping up” government.
- Suggestions of a more cooperative approach on use of executive authority. Sen. Manchin admitted that every governor had “overstepped” their bounds, but insisted executive orders are an effective way of achieving politically sensitive solutions—with governors “taking the heat”—if done through dialogue in an atmosphere of “mutual respect.” “You never want to embarrass anyone.”
- Demands for better management and oversight. Sen. Rounds decried a $1 billion-dollar overrun on a 50 percent-completed Veterans Administration hospital and noted of Social Security reform that “the sooner we address it, the less painful and easier it is.” Both advocated greater certainty in, and reform of, the tax code.
- Optimism over a more open amendment process, despite the possibility of upsetting compromises achieved at the committee level. Sen. Rounds argued that a more open process gets legislators more engaged, and “that’s a healthy thing” that would lead to less disruptive and more cooperative approaches to amendments. Added Sen. Manchin, “we have earned the right to make a fool out of ourselves.”
If Sen. Manchin’s and Rounds’ warmth and thoughtfulness at BPC is any indication, Hill observers would be well-advised to keep an eye on these two—because they will be doing some truly significant legislating in the very near future.