Sen. Thomas R. Carper kicked off his Senate floor tribute to retiring Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., in December by noting the two of them, along with presiding officer Joe Manchin III, were all “recovering governors.”
“We’re sort of a support group for one another,” the Delaware Democrat said then. “Men and women who used to be somebody and be special.”
Carper was kidding — mostly.
The former chief executives, who now make up 10 percent of the Senate, did form a casual working group last Congress and dubbed it the Former Governors Caucus. It’s a legislative body subset defined by an often term-limit-forced career move from top dog in their home states to one of 100 in the nation’s capital.
It’s not always the easiest of transitions.
“We all loved being governor,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said last week on a Senate Subway ride back to his office, “and most of us love being senator.”
Sens. Angus King, I-Maine; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; and freshman Mike Rounds, R-S.D., are chairing the bipartisan group, which re-launched for the 114th Congress in April. The lawmakers held their second formal gathering of the year last week, and the three chairmen sat down Tuesday for an interview with Roll Call.
“What brings us together as governors is an orientation toward results and a frustration with an institution that generally isn’t very good at getting results,” King said.
The senators joked some as they sat around a conference table in Shaheen’s hideaway office in the Capitol basement. But, just a few steps and quick elevator ride from the Senate floor, where campaigning and name-calling has joined lawmaking in recent weeks, they were open about their frustration and, in turn, their conviction, to finding a better way to legislate.
Those frustrations, listed variously by at least one of the three, included overuse of the filibuster, rule-making, hearing schedules, constant fundraising, lack of relationships and Congress abdicating its own constitutional powers, citing the Authorization for Use of Military Force as the prime example.
“I think there’s less accountability here in the Senate,” Shaheen said, adding later, “We have talked about our frustrations with the partisanship and with the fact that, again, as someone who’s been held accountable, there’s a belief that we should continue to be and move things forward and compromise and get things done, and sometimes there are others here who don’t feel that way.”
Their July 27 meeting in a small hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building was sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Along with the highway bill, the budget was the primary focus of the conversation, including the possibility of making it a biennial process.
After passing as an amendment in 2013 to the Senate’s nonbinding budget resolution, Shaheen and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., reintroduced a bill in January that would alter the budget schedule. Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., has put forward similar legislation.
“We decided that one of the things there was agreement on is the fact that the budget process is broken, and we need to look at what we can do to help work on that,” Shaheen said.
Just six months into his Senate tenure, Rounds, who is interested in a biennial budget process as well, is still getting used to his position as a junior member, particularly with crucial legislative deadlines coming to a head in the fall.
“As a new member, not being directly involved with those discussions on a regular basis, it’s frustrating, where as governor you’d be right in the middle of things,” he said.
The esteem the senators in this caucus hold their former jobs is no more apparent than in the lobby of Sen. Jim Risch’s office on the fourth floor of the Russell building. A full-size replica of his Idaho governor’s office door stands prominently between the desks of two assistants, greeting every visitor.
“It’s unlike anything that you do in life,” Risch said with a smile last week on the way into lunch with his GOP colleagues.
When King approached Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about the Former Governors Caucus, he told the Kentucky Republican that some suggested the group be called the Extremely Frustrated Caucus.
“Then Mitch said, ‘Well, I’ve found if you have a former governor who’s now a senator and you ask him which job they like better, if they tell you senator they’ll lie to you about other things.’ I thought that was a pretty good way to put it,” King said, laughing.
After losing two former governors last year to retirement and adding one in the midterm elections, the Former Governors Caucus now stands at 10.
It could grow by one in the next Congress, with former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland challenging Republican Sen. Rob Portman in 2016, or perhaps two if New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan takes on and defeats Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
In a phone interview, Strickland said he didn’t consider the potential frustrations of the Senate when deciding whether to run.
“When you’re governor, you’re the person ultimately responsible, but if you’re going to govern a state as large as Ohio, for example, you’ve got to depend on your team to help you,” he said. “There’s all sorts of agencies with specialized responsibilities and so on, so although you’re the ultimate decision-maker … you still have to depend upon other people.”
As reason for optimism, Strickland cited Manchin’s April announcement that he intends to seek re-election in 2018, despite publicly flirting with a return to the West Virginia governor’s mansion next year.
“At the time he made the announcement … he indicated there was a possibility of getting things done in the Senate,” Strickland said.
Manchin’s not the only former governor to consider a return. In the wake of the 2012 elections, Virginia Democrats awaited word from Sen. Mark Warner, who was known to have enjoyed his time as governor a decade earlier and would have been a solid favorite to win the job back the following year. He opted to run for re-election instead.
Kaine, who succeeded Warner as Virginia governor, said much of the discussions among his fellow ex-governors “naturally goes to implementation and reform and budget fixes.” He also supports changing the budget to a biennial process.
In a separate interview with Roll Call last week, Rounds called serving as governor “truly the greatest job in the world.” While clarifying he was not at all comparing serving in the Senate to the men and women in combat overseas, he said the Senate is “kind of like a deployment.”
“This is truly where the problems are at. This is where the damage is being done. So this is where you’ve got to go to fix it,” Rounds said.
One former governor who’s found a home in the Senate is Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, who crafted with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law that passed the Senate overwhelmingly last month.
On a packed Senate Subway car last week, Alexander told Roll Call most of the former governors he worked with on the education bill understood it thoroughly because they had dealt with schools issues in their states. Same goes for highway bills, he said, which is why the former governors are vital to helping make the Senate work.
“It’s a force for results, and it’s a force for bipartisanship,” Alexander said. “Because most of us learn as governors, if you really want to get a result, you have to be able to work with other people — and that includes people of the other party.”