Clinton Calls on the Governors for Help

NEAL R. PEIRCE

February 08, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- President Clinton spent so much time with the nation's governors last week that it seemed he wished he were one of them again.

On Sunday evening, he invited all 50 to a gala White House dinner, the first of his administration. On Monday, he had them at his new residence again for a meeting of almost three hours discussing the budget deficit and potentials for national health reform. And on Tuesday morning, the president was with the governors once more, at their conference hotel, to talk to them about welfare reform, one of their favorite subjects.

Now Mr. Clinton has appointed four governors to what may be the most critical policy group of his presidency -- the health reform task force under Hillary Clinton.

Clearly there's a touch of sentiment in this for the man who was America's senior governor and a longtime leader in the National Governors' Association. It didn't take much prodding, for example, for Mr. Clinton to simplify waivers to Medicaid rules for the states, and order that once a waiver is granted to one state, any other, in the spirit of federalist experimentation, may try it too.

The governors' association chairman, Roy Romer, D-Colo., says TC Mr. Clinton called him shortly after the election saying he wanted a relationship with none of ''the 3x5-card routine at the White House -- read your lines, get a photo op, go home. He wanted substantive discussion.''

Apparently Mr. Clinton got his way. He commented right after his long White House session with the governors:

''This meeting was a model of everything I want our relationship with the governors to be. It wasn't scripted or staged. It was simply an honest discussion where real work was done, real opinions were argued and a room filled with women and men who left their partisan banners outside the door.''

The new presidential-gubernatorial connection has other, powerful rationales. First, the country is in deep trouble. Unless it controls its massive deficits, which means clamping down on spiraling health-care costs and entitlement programs, the yearly national deficit will climb, the governors say, from $290 billion in 1992 to $455 billion in 2000 and $653 billion in 2003. American productivity, economic growth and standard of living will plummet.

The states, forced to run balanced budgets, are already seeing Medicaid costs, as Governor Romer puts it, ''eat our lunch'' by devouring every new revenue dollar they get.

This week, the governors adopted highly specific health-reform and budget resolutions, the latter calling for reducing the federal deficit to zero in the next eight years.

''The governors have to come to the table as active federal policy partners,'' says Governor Romer. ''We are not here in the role of how much you can give us, but rather because, for our own sake, we have to reinvent American government.''

Mr. Clinton, conversely, knows the start of his administration provides a rare opportunity to tame the deficit monster and rekindle U.S. productivity. His political fate, and the nation's economic hopes, hang by the same thread.

But even if the president can fashion a diet of mutual and shared budget sacrifices, plus health and welfare reform, he has to get those programs through Congress. Gov. Pete Wilson, R-Calif., told me how tough it will be for President Clinton to break the near-dictatorial power of some of the lords of Capitol Hill, especially the Senate where Mr. Wilson himself served.

Enter, again, the governors. Some do have serious political problems at home. But they are powerful opinion molders. Engaged, consulted, speaking up in their home media, and if brought again to Washington to back up this new president, the governors could provide Mr. Clinton with desperately needed credibility, bipartisan grass-roots support, and a counterpoint to lobbies and entrenched congressional committee chairs.

Where else, one wonders, will Mr. Clinton find that quality and depth of support?

Watching the governors emerge from their long session with Mr. Clinton, I had to muse how very far they had come since 1981. Their chair that year, the late Richard Snelling of Vermont, told me they had gathered their courage, for the first time ever, to take public positions on such ''non-state'' issues as entitlements, defense and the federal budget.

It goes without saying that any coalition of 50 independently elected people can shatter under political pressures, that Mr. Clinton may not be able to hold the governors' support indefinitely.

But by working collaboratively on education, welfare reform and other agendas over the last 12 years, the governors have created a new force of ground-level pragmatism in American politics. President Clinton not only symbolizes that new and intriguing force. He has to use it.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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