Op-Ed: Governors are in Washington, but are they equal partners?

January 31, 2022

By By Doug Hoelscher in the Washington Times

By Doug Hoelscher in the Washington Times

President Biden is scheduled to meet with the nation’s governors during their annual trip to Washington today. Unfortunately, it seems Mr. Biden views governors as more of a political and constitutional inconvenience than a true partner. In August of last year, Mr. Biden said governors should “get out of the way” if they disagreed with how the federal government responded to COVID-19. Yet, just one month ago, Mr. Biden reversed his position and said: “there is no federal solution” to the COVID-19 response. Our Founding Fathers recognized the need for a healthy state-federal partnership. Given our shared challenges, the White House needs to nurture this crucial partnership to serve the American people.

When they meet, what will be on the agenda, and will it be an honest conversation about our nation’s many challenges? If I were setting the agenda, I would start with a discussion on the 40-year high inflation that burdens hardworking Americans at the fuel pump, rising prices at grocery stores, and increasing costs in heating homes and small businesses. Perhaps just as important would be identifying opportunities to remove disincentives to work and state-federal collaboration to remove red tape that burdens forgotten Americans.

I would also recommend Mr. Biden look at his predecessor for a more effective playbook in cultivating the state-federal partnership. For starters, former President Donald Trump had more than 700 in-person interactions with our nation’s governors in his four years. They were bipartisan too. 

Mr. Trump made it a priority to meet with governors outside of their normal trip to Washington. This included roundtables and one-on-one meetings with Democrat governors such as New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, Hawaii Gov. David Ige and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Over the course of four years, Mr. Trump on average found time to interact with a governor every other day — 16 interactions per month. Even President Ronald Reagan’s deep commitment to federalism could not match these statistics. Has Mr. Biden invited Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to sit down in the Oval yet?

Mr. Trump listened to governors too. Annually, the Trump White House surveyed all 50 governors on their state-federal priorities. Those priorities typically included workforce development, expanding broadband, criminal justice reform and developing opportunity zones, to name a few. The surveys helped inform working sessions with governors and identify areas where we could partner and prioritize resources for the year ahead. I wonder if Mr. Biden’s White House valued the relationship enough to formally ask governors what their state-federal priorities were for 2022. 

By regularly interacting and listening to governors, Mr. Trump and his administration found ways to solve shared challenges such as workforce development and reducing regulatory burdens — and bring solutions at every level of government, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I would bet that every governor shares concern about workers sitting on the sidelines at a time when they are so desperately needed, but will this White House call for a renewed focus on workforce development? A focal point of Mr. Trump’s 2018 annual meeting with governors was the Pledge to America’s Workers. This initiative brought a bipartisan majority of governors to prioritize workforce development and improving the skills of American workers. The Biden Council of Economic Advisers says employment remains 3.6 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels. With more than 10 million jobs open today, this is a prime opportunity for collaboration between governors and the president.

Will the meetings focus on cutting government red tape that particularly hurts lower-income Americans? Mr. Trump started a bipartisan movement to streamline state licensing requirements and remove other unnecessary government burdens, called the Governors’ Initiative on Regulatory Innovation. Since then, nearly a dozen states have passed universal licensing recognition laws, and several more have started red tape reduction initiatives. Many more American workers now have the freedom to practice their profession without the permission of government bureaucrats. In 2022 alone, governors of both parties continue efforts to reduce government regulatory burdens. In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds called for eliminating additional unnecessary licensing requirements. In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis called for waiving licensing fees for health care workers. And in Virginia, newly sworn-in Gov. Glenn Youngkin aims to cut 25% of excessive regulations. 

Mr. Trump’s efforts with governors built bipartisan bridges over shared priorities — even if most of the media didn’t want to tell this story. Can Mr. Biden correct his course and do the same? Mr. Biden should follow Mr. Trump’s federalism playbook and view governors as true partners. 

Doug Hoelscher serves as Chief Operating Officer for the America First Policy Institute (AFPI) and previously served as Asistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs in the Trump White House.