Why Republican Governors Hate the Republican Congress

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The party's stars in the states have stayed popular by showing they can govern -- unlike their counterparts on Capitol Hill.

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Governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana (left) and Bob McDonnell of Virginia (Associated Press)

A bunch of Republican governors have been in Washington the past few days for the National Governors Association meeting, just in time to chew out their fellow Republicans in Congress over the upcoming sequestration cuts.

"I think there's a lack of leadership," Gary Herbert of Utah groused to Politico on Sunday. "They need to stop having press conferences and start meeting," echoed Virginia's Bob McDonnell. "I think the Hill ought to be saying, 'We're ready to sit down and work on a budget,'" said Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett.

The drumbeat of criticism continued Monday with a press conference by Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, South Carolina's Nikki Haley, and Wisconsin's Scott Walker -- all prominent conservatives with national profiles who made it clear they had little use for the congressional GOP's approach, which has mainly consisted of sitting on its collective hands, blaming the White House, and waiting for the cuts to take effect.

"We're not here speaking on behalf of Republicans on the Hill, we're speaking on behalf of Republican governors," Walker said pointedly. "The difference is, we're providing leadership."

Ouch. If this all sounds familiar, though, it may be because the split between the Hill GOP and their counterparts in the nation's governor's mansions has been going on for a while. The frustration is real and goes beyond routine D.C.-bashing to score political points. It's a split between the Republicans who are charged with governing and those who have dug in as a pure opposition party. Indeed, the party's future may hinge on which faction prevails -- the state executives, whose responsibility to govern has made them pragmatists, or the D.C. legislators, many of whom seem content to serve solely as an alternative and obstacle to the Democratic White House and Senate.

At the state level, necessity begets compromise, even among those considered ideologically hard-line. Just last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott broke with party orthodoxy -- joining six other Republican governors -- and agreed to accept the Medicaid expansion funded by Obamacare. A couple months ago, it was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie chewing out House Speaker John Boehner for holding up Hurricane Sandy aid to his state.

The GOP governors don't have the luxury of taking symbolic stands on principle; they have budgets to balance, deadlines to meet, and constituents to serve. From Wisconsin's Walker to Virginia's McDonnell to Nevada's Brian Sandoval, many have raised taxes when that was what it took to run their states the way they saw fit. They don't have the luxury of saying no to federal handouts -- since the economic collapse of 2008, states have relied heavily on federal funds, whether in the form of unemployment benefits to their struggling populations or the massive, direct federal grants of the 2009 stimulus bill, which kept teachers employed and road projects going at a time when state budgets were hard pressed. Now, it's the federal funds imperiled by Friday's sequestration deadline -- from defense-contractor jobs to kids in Head Start preschool -- that the GOP governors can't afford to do without.

As Sarah Palin might put it, a Republican governor is sort of like a Republican member of Congress, except with actual responsibilities.

Right now, the Republican Party's greatest strength is its governors. The GOP rules a large majority of states -- 30 of them -- and many executives, like Christie, Sandoval, McDonnell, and New Mexico's Susana Martinez, are overwhelmingly popular even though their states went for Barack Obama in the last two presidential elections. At generally doleful gatherings of down-and-out Republicans, such as last month's Republican National Committee meeting, the governors are constantly cited as Exhibit A in the argument that there's hope for the party after all. They are a diverse and dynamic bunch -- four are nonwhite and four are women. They are, in all respects, the opposite of the dismally unpopular old white men of the House and Senate GOP.

If there's a subtext to the governors' criticism, then, it's this: Quit making us look bad. The question is whether their friends in Congress are listening.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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