The week after Barack Obama's election win, Ray Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association, warned a conference of state and local officials that they would likely see their pull diminished in a one-party town beset by the country's economic woes.
That was before the president-elect met with the governors in Philadelphia this December, before they came to Washington to advise lawmakers on the economic stimulus bill, and before the group's conference this weekend brought front-page media attention and more face time with the president and congressional leaders.
Asked recently about his November prediction, Scheppach could only chuckle.
"This year, it's been very different," he said. "I think that the administration reached for governors, having that summit up in Philadelphia, and most governors were extremely pleased about the meeting. It has continued. And I would say governors had a lot of input both to the Hill and the administration in terms of the stimulus."
The governors haven't been the only ones to find themselves with a better seat at the table recently. The sheer number of problems confronting the country right now means that a range of voices not typically aligned with either party have found a more receptive audience, from activist nonprofits to local governments to working groups and think tanks. Their areas of focus differ, but they share a willingness to skirt party lines and a preference for the wonky and the practical.
Tom Cochran has worked for the U.S. Conference of Mayors since 1969, becoming executive director more than 20 years ago. "This is my ninth or tenth White House," Cochran said. "When President Nixon was here, we were in the White House working. President Ford, we worked on transportation. We didn't do that with President Bush II."
But Cochran said he's been impressed by a new openness from the White House and Capitol Hill after meetings during the stimulus debate. "We've gone through so many years that we've been trying to get things done, but Washington gets in this kind of gridlock," he said. While Obama has shown a firm hand to mayors, telling them they'd be held accountable for wasteful stimulus spending, his arrival in town has been a boon for those who want to see progress on urban problems.
"There is now a search for pragmatic approaches to big problems that is associated with the kinds of ideas and policy formulations that some people call 'post-partisan,'" said Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, a think tank that has in the past labeled itself with that term. It's too soon to start calling this a post-partisan town, but with the range of problems facing the country, and a president who has expressed a desire to try new ways of doing things, these groups see an opening to parlay their credibility and expertise into greater influence.
Diana Aviv heads Independent Sector, a coalition of some 600 charities and foundations. Even before the Obama team took office, she was meeting with transition officials about the role nonprofits could play in the economic recovery, and she advised Congress during the shaping of the bill. A loan program for nonprofits that was supported by Independent Sector didn't make it into the final product, but Aviv says she's happy with the legislation and optimistic that her group will be invited in on other issues.
"Lawmakers paying attention to these issues of poor people and progress -- we haven't heard that refrain in I can't even remember how long," she said. "There was a genuine interest in learning and knowing about what the scope of the issues were, and the challenges and the problems." That refrain was echoed by Cochran as well: "It's very encouraging to go to the White House and when you start talking to them, they start taking notes."
Still, some doubt the viability of a less partisan style of politics where fundamental disagreements exist. Government spending, Coll points out, was hardly the ideal testing ground for Obama to look for common ground between the parties; indeed, he didn't find it. On more specific problems like entitlement reform or education, where the ideological trenches run comparatively shallow, he and nonaligned groups like the governors might have better luck.
Even the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group whose dedication to balanced budgets hasn't exactly been in vogue recently, is upbeat this week after attending the president's summit on fiscal responsibility. In a statement released Monday, Concord Executive Director Robert Bixby hailed the meeting and announced that his organization would begin a "Fiscal Wake-Up Tour" to convince lawmakers that solving the country's fiscal problems "will require bipartisan cooperation and a willingness to discuss all options."
Observers point to the 1983 Social Security reform effort led by Alan Greenspan, which for a time righted the endangered program, as a model to be imitated. But there are less successful precedents as well, including the U.S. Institute of Peace's Iraq Study Group, whose recommendations ultimately had little impact on U.S. policy in Iraq. Merely putting advice out there isn't enough to ensure it will be heeded.
"I would distinguish between the ability to get meetings on the one hand and the ability to reshape policy on the other," said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's governance studies program. "But the White House, I suspect, is genuinely open, in part because they're engaged in a breathtaking exercise in broken-field running right now."
For now, many of these groups remain hopeful that their experience and expertise will give them credibility to help policymakers navigate the challenges of the next few years. Galston, a longtime Democratic adviser who was also chief speechwriter for John Anderson's National Unity campaign, said that Washington will likely have few other options.
"If all of the usual rules in policymaking, the normal maxims, the normal guideposts suddenly seem to be inoperative, just inapplicable, then it stands to reason that you're going to listen to a range of voices that might not have gotten a hearing previously."
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