WASHINGTON – The five senators had gathered to announce a bipartisan breakthrough that would lower borrowing costs for millions of college students and fundamentally alter how the federal government sets interest rates on student loans.
But Maine Sen. Angus King couldn’t forgo the opportunity to make another point.
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that of the five people standing before you today, three of them are former governors,” King, a two-term governor from Maine, told reporters that morning in late June. “Because we came here to try to do things and to see problems solved.”
The key word in that sentence may be “try.”
King and other former governors now in the Senate often talk about how their previous experiences as chief executives gave them a different perspective on governing. Yet the Senate also has a long history of grinding former governors down as the realities of the chamber’s oftentimes glacial pace runs counter to their experiences leading much smaller bureaucracies.
“They are used to saying, ‘Do this’ and it gets done. And nothing gets done in the Senate,” said Wendy Schiller, an associate professor of political science at Brown University who studies the Senate.
The bipartisan compromise on student loans that passed the Senate last week was, in the end, the result of negotiations involving Democratic leadership and the White House. But the keel of the legislation was laid down by five senators: King, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
King and Manchin began conversations on student loans after competing Democratic and Republican bills failed. They and Alexander are among 11 former governors serving in the Senate.
Although a relatively young group in terms of years in the Senate, its members run the political spectrum with six Democrats, four Republicans and King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. All but one of the 11 — New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen — are men, a statistic that reflects the disproportionately low number of women in both the Senate and governor’s mansions nationwide.
Several of those now-senators — while careful not to portray themselves as better than their non-gubernatorial peers — said they believe former governors can often bring a somewhat different perspective to the table.
“I think everyone brings their own background and, in that sense, something special. But I think (former governors) have a common experience that helps us work together,” said Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican who served 10 years as governor before winning election to the Senate in 2010.
Sen. Tom Carper described it as “an extra dose of pragmatism” and a realization that working with different interests — whether state legislators, other governors or members of Congress — requires governing “from the middle.”
Carper, a Democrat who served two terms as Delaware’s governor, gave the example of trying to craft a policy platform at the National Governors Association.
“In order for us to agree on policy issues that we recommend to the president and to Congress, we need unanimity — all 50 of us had to agree,” said Carper, who also was involved in the student loan negotiations. “What we learned to do, at that time, was how to generate consensus, how to find the middle.”
Both senators from Virginia — Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine — are former Democratic governors who had to work with at least one and sometimes two Republican-controlled chambers of the Virginia General Assembly. The men have said the experience shaped their attitudes — and expectations — coming into the Senate.
“You had to try to find … where things overlapped,” Kaine said. “And I think that is needed in the Senate and is needed in the House. And most governors bring that attitude toward the table.”
So do former governors make more effective senators?
“I think they can be effective within the limits of the chamber,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, a widely read newsletter on Capitol Hill.
The Senate is more conducive to cross-party cooperation than the House of Representatives because of the 60-vote threshold required to break a filibuster. But that doesn’t mean that bipartisanship always succeeds, as evidenced by the bipartisan bill co-authored by Manchin earlier this year to expand background checks on private gun sales.
Duffy said former governors work across the political aisle more often because they had the experience of having to work with a state legislature to have any success on their administration’s agenda.
“I think they are used to it,” Duffy said. “This is how they governed, so it doesn’t surprise me that they would bring that to the Senate. At the same time, they are the most frustrated members of the U.S. Senate … because they are used to getting things done.”
Indeed, several former governors are known for their work across the aisle even if their efforts are not always successful.
Warner helped lead the “Gang of Six” senators that tried to broker a deal on the national debt. And Hoeven worked with other former governors and the National Governors Association to try to work out a bipartisan compromise on Medicaid.
But bipartisanship is by no means exclusive to former governors, as evidenced by other well-known deal-makers in the Senate, including Maine Sen. Susan Collins and former Sen. Olympia Snowe, both Republicans.
Frustrations with the Senate’s slow pace may also be part of the reason why there are so few former governors in leadership roles.
Only three of the 11 in the current Senate have served more than one term: Carper, Alexander and Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. And Brown University’s Schiller points out that Rockefeller arrived in Washington in the mid-1980s, when the scene was far different from today’s hyperpartisan atmosphere.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., is a one-and-done senator, having already signaled that he will not seek re-election next year. While Nebraska has a long history of sending former governors to the Senate, current Gov. Dave Heineman declined Republicans’ efforts to persuade him to run after talking with several former chief executives who went on to serve in the Senate.
As an independent, King didn’t have a party to lure him into a race where he spent much of the campaign talking about the need for bipartisanship in Washington.
Soon after his election, King reached out to former governors now in the Senate and then held an informal dinner at the Capitol attended by seven of the 11. Plans are also under way to once again try to coordinate a “Governor’s Caucus” that would be more than simply a social gathering but would work on a specific policy issue, King said.
King often points out that, as governor, he had to negotiate with everyone because he didn’t have any party allies in the Maine Legislature. But he sees the power structure in Washington through a similar lens, with a Democratic president, a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-controlled Senate where the minority party still has significant power due to the filibuster.
“There is no way that anybody in this place can get anything done without bipartisan support. It’s just arithmetic,” King said shortly after the bipartisan student loan bill passed the Senate on an 81-18 vote. “You can make speeches, you can be mad … but in the end, if you don’t have the votes, it doesn’t get done.”
North Dakota’s Hoeven offered a similar assessment.
“To pass anything here, it’s got to be bipartisan,” Hoeven said. “We have to find ways to work together, so hopefully this will help.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: