WILLIAMSBURG, Va. —To Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, the partisan rancor in Washington is reminiscent of an elementary school classroom.
“It reminds me of a little bit of…the old cartoons of taking the pigtails of the little girl who’s ahead of you in second grade and putting it in the ink well,” Hickenlooper said. “And the throwing spitballs and the teasing. They just can’t resist poking the other person across the aisle and causing a little bit of a ruckus.”
Indeed, at the annual National Governor’s Association meeting this weekend, collective griping over the gridlock in D.C. was a rare point of bipartisan consensus. The paralysis in the nation’s capital, after all, has tangible ramifications for the state’s executives, the governors said.
Questions loom over the Medicaid expansion that the Supreme Court made optional with its ruling last month, with many governors saying they need more clarity from the federal government before they can move forward—unlikely, given that the fate of the health care law may hang in the balance of the November elections. Even more pressing, the so-called “fiscal cliff” threatens to bust state budgets around the country when automatic tax hikes and spending cuts go into effect at the start of the year if federal lawmakers fail to forge a compromise.
“The biggest issue I have with the federal government is that they don’t act,” said Republican Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska at the opening National Governor’s Association press conference. “What I’d prefer is for president and Congress to make some tough decisions and then maybe go on vacation for a couple of years.”
Democrat Jack Markell, governor of Delaware, offered a startlingly similar assessment from the other end of the political spectrum.
“Some of my friends who work in Washington tell us the worst day in our states is better than the best day in Washington and I think there’s probably a lot of truth to that,” he said. “Washington may be caught in the grip of partisan paralysis but in state capitals, we really don’t have that choice.”
States, Markell pointed out, can’t borrow money and balanced budgets are not optional.
“It’s almost a perfect storm in Washington,” Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican from Oklahoma, told National Journal. “There are so many issues that are out there that governors are saying wait a minute, it’s hard to for us to make decisions on our state budgets with some of these core issues when we don’t know what Congress is going to do between now and the election and the end of the lame duck session.”
Hickenlooper said he’s running out of ideas for what it would take to bring consensus and compromise. World War II led the country out of the Depression; hopefully, this time around, it won’t come to that. “It takes some cathartic event of something and I don’t know what the cathartic event is going to be,” he said. “I thought it was the budget crisis last year—I thought we were going to move past that point.”
But away from the central roundtable of the governors' meeting—when class wasn’t in session, so to speak—many of the governors weren’t beyond throwing spitballs on their own, a symptom of a heated presidential election year in which no one seems immune.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, kicked the weekend off with a press conference in which he accused the Obama team of waging a campaign of “division and misrepresentation.” Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, accused Republicans’ blocking the President’s agenda in Washington “unpatriotic,” while fellow Gov. Pete Shumlin, Democrat from Vermont, said his GOP compatriots who had not committed to a Medicaid decision were “disingenuous.”
“The American people are sick and tired of spineless politicians,” he said.
On the same day that the Obama campaign released a blistering ad against Romney, juxtaposing the Republican nominee singing “America the Beautiful” while the offshore tax havens he listed on his returns flash across the screen, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley conspiratorially whispered to reporters, “Barack Obama has a much better voice than Mitt Romney.”