For three days last week, the nation’s Governors from both parties scurried with their security details down swanky hotel hallways in Washington, D.C., with legions of well-dressed men and women wearing orange lanyards in hot pursuit. The marked followers, who wore name tags identifying their employers on the orange cords, were ubiquitous at the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA). They could also be found huddled over restaurant tables with the state leaders, or cozied up next to officials on lobby sofas. More would tug on gubernatorial sleeves at the private receptions and in the hallways of the conference center.
The interlopers were officially called “corporate fellows” in the lingo of the event, but most Americans would probably just recognize them better as lobbyists—well-paid ear-benders working to place their clients’ interests before the state’s most powerful elected leader. They form the backbone of the policy arm of the NGA, which has played a role in crafting some of the most significant bipartisan policy solutions in the nation’s history, like the now-fraught Common Core education standards. And their constant presence was one of the few unifying presences at an organization increasingly riven by partisan divisions.
But in recent years, governors and staff say, even the constant presence of influence peddlers has begun to wear on the members of the NGA, as the organization has lost influence, driven by concerns about a slow-moving organization and growing polarization among the governors, who increasingly favor party-specific Governor gatherings.
“It’s a lobbyist-fest,” said the chief of staff to one governor of the NGA. “And worse yet, the organization isn’t accountable to anyone.”
In recent years, both the Democratic and Republican Governors Associations, known by the acronyms DGA and RGA, have built out their policy teams, as both parties’ governors have become more ideologically polarized. They view the NGA as a bloated bureaucracy—it still uses triplicate copy paper for on-site registrations—that produces few results, or worse, policies they don’t support. Republican governors have been saddled by the organization’s role in framing Common Core, while Democratic governors have bristled at the organization’s more GOP-friendly positions on immigration and healthcare.
“The most valuable commodity any governor has is their time,” said former RGA Executive Director Phil Cox. “They have to ask the question, ‘What are we getting out of this?’ At RGA and DGA, it is pretty clear. Their time and engagement results in substantial and effective political and policy support. At NGA, it is less clear. In recent years, it is difficult to point to substantive bipartisan accomplishments.”
Since Common Core, the group’s policy initiatives have faded in ambition and significance. This year’s chair’s initiative, called “Delivering Results,” focused on boosting government efficiency, while one of the group’s key legislative priorities is passing the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act, which would allow states to charge sale tax on Internet purchases.
“We’re not competitors with RGA and DGA,” said NGA Deputy Director David Quam, who said the group has “a very active agenda this year.” “Their job is to get governors elected. Our job is to help bring them together and come to policy positions that can really solve issues at the state level and the federal level. We’re probably more relevant now than ever because all the action’s in the states.”
According to a spokesperson, last year, the organization held more than 80 meetings in states with nearly 3,100 state officials on issues such as economic development, education, health care and governance.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry pulled his state out of the organization more than a decade ago, and has been followed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and others. Democrats, like former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, have considered quitting the organization, but have yet to take the leap. Dues-paying New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has never attended a session, according to fellow governors, while California’s Gov. Jerry Brown has frequently skipped the meetings. Quam called the trend “old news.”
“The biggest thing keeping governors engaged in NGA is a sense that they want to support their colleagues who are in leadership,” said a person close to Democratic governors.
The NGA considers all governors members in their organization by virtue of their election, even if they’ve decided against paying dues. Governors are charged membership in the organization based on the population size of their states, with the largest states paying more than $175,000 before travel costs are added. The money is usually paid out of a governor’s budget, funds they could use to hire additional staff or use for other initiatives.
The annual Washington conference is the more business heavy of the two meetings a year. The summer gathering, which rotates around the country, includes leisure activities. In 2013 in Milwaukee, governors were offered the chance to ride to the Harley Davidson museum on motorcycles as part of a motorcade with veterans, and were treated to a fireworks display over Lake Michigan after a fancy dinner reception. The 2014 meeting in Nashville featured a performance by country music star Carrie Underwood and a private reception at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
One former senior DGA official called the group “the spleen of political organizations.”
“They’re infuriated when a Governor pops their mouth off about something ‘political,’ but then turn around and do politically insane things like sell access to Governors to Chinese government officials,” the operative said, referencing the 2011 meeting which brought together Chinese governors at an event at the Chinese embassy in Washington. The 2015 meeting included a reception at the Canadian embassy.
According to the event program, 122 companies were represented as corporate fellows at this meeting, including Bank of America, IBM, McKinsey & Company, and UPS.
The ostensible reason for the meetings—convening governors to share ideas and best practices—is often fleeting. In the corner of the main meeting room, a large case contains name cards for the 55 governors from the states and U.S. territories. But most never leave the box. Few governors attend the public sessions, where issues like healthcare, education, and cyber-security are discussed, instead taking meetings with reporters, donors, or the orange-lanyards interest group representatives. Some registered attendees, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, didn’t attend a single open committee session this weekend.
“There’s no venue quite like this,” boasted one corporate government affairs executive. “I have meetings with governors stacked up all day.”
Quam said he’s not surprised by the corporate interest in NGA, saying it’s a sign that the states are actually getting things done. “They complain that we don’t give them enough access all the time,” he said of the fellows. The NGA maintains that committee session attendance has been “excellent,” noting that only 8-10 governors serve on each committee.
Alongside the conferences are gatherings of the RGA and DGA, much of whose unlimited fundraising comes from the same corporate fellows who fill the coffers of the NGA. On Saturday night, the DGA threw its annual Taste of the America gala at the Mayflower hotel for its donors. The RGA’s Executive Roundtable huddled Friday with the governors, with an address by former Vice President Dick Cheney.
But the NGA organizers try hard to keep try to keep the partisanship out of the main conference center, sometimes to no avail. Closed-door luncheons of governors in recent years have frequented partisan spats over the Affordable Care Act or immigration policy.
Last year’s press conference following a private meeting with President Barack Obama devolved into a partisan smack-down between Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy. The capstone of the weekend, the annual governor’s dinner at the White House, isn’t even an official NGA event. Hosted by the President and First Lady, all governors are invited to the black tie dinner, as well as to the business meeting with the president set for Monday morning.