Opinion: Ex-governors hold the keys to progress on debt deal

All politics is not the same.

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This of course flies in the face of the cynical banter of the professional pundits. For the most part, they just repeat each other and mumble conventional wisdom. They also generally have no actual experience in running for office, which is why they are so often misguided. The simple fact is that there are big differences in the way politics are pursued depending on the job.

Take, for instance, the job of governor. You get up in the morning, go to work, find five, six or more complicated problems on your desk. You call your department heads, tell them to fix these problems and then at five in the afternoon you call them back and ask: “Are the problems fixed?” Usually they are. If they are not, there is almost always at least a game plan for action.

Compare this to serving in the Senate.

In the Senate, you go to work. The issue you are dealing with today is the same issue you dealt with yesterday. In fact, it is usually the same issue you dealt with weeks ago, months ago, probably in the last Congress if you were there.

The Senate is like a bowl of Jell-o. You put your hand in, you take it out, nothing changes. With time, progress is occasionally made, issues are occasionally resolved or at least definitively acted upon.

Immigration is a good example of this process. Major immigration reform legislation has been a topic of considerable discussion in the Senate for at least 10 years. Maybe this year it will be resolved. (Let’s hope so, as we truly do need action in this critical area of national policy. )

If it were a state issue and the governors were in charge of it, we would not still be debating it. But that is the difference. Governors have to act to survive. The Senate was designed by our founders, specifically Madison who wanted lots of checks, to be inert.

This brings us to another issue of the day: the debt. As Kent Conrad, the former Democratic senator from North Dakota, was fond of saying, “the debt is the threat”. We are now entering the second decade of this being a central topic of Congressional discussion. Progress is marginal, the debt grows and the nation continues to careen toward a European-like mess, with an inevitable reduction of the standard of living for the nation.

We need some action.

Here is a thought: We have all these people who are action oriented and they are in the Senate. There are now 10 former governors serving in the Senate. They are on both sides of the aisle. They are former doers. They use to call their department heads and solve problems.

The Senate cannot possibly have beaten out of them this instinctive desire to govern. It must be sitting around somewhere in the back of their minds, eating away at them as they wander the tunnels between Russell, Dirksen, Hart and the Capitol on their way to another repetitious vote on a issue which will be returned to in a few weeks’ time. There has to be a considerable level of frustration brewing amongst this group of people who succeeded by accomplishing things.

Maybe it is time they convened as group. There have, over the years, been attempts to bring the former governors serving in the senate together, but these efforts have been mostly social. This time make it for a purpose. There are three issues that have to be resolved. They have been gummed up interminably by the Congress. They are of course making Social Security solvent, making Medicare affordable and making our tax laws understandable and productive.

How does this occur?

The president should convene a council of the former governors serving in the Senate. The charge should be simple: “Act”. Do what you use to do when you ran your states.

He should have them agree, as I suspect they would since this is their nature, that they would not leave the room until they had specific proposals for either resolving, or setting up a pathway to resolving, the issues around Social Security, Medicare and tax reform. The president should agree to stay in the room with them as he is also, like a governor, charged with governing.

There are enough former governors in the Senate, and the group is bipartisan enough, that any proposals they came up with in conjunction with the president would have tremendous momentum. They would probably be enacted fairly promptly.

All politics is not the same. If this course is followed, that will become even clearer.

Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations. He is also an international adviser to Goldman Sachs.

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