Friends in High Places

Originally published in Utah Business.

During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., I found myself between appointments sitting on a park bench just off Capitol Hill and within view of the Hall of the States—a large and grand building where many of the 50 states house their Washington offices. It’s where the business of states gets done in the nation’s capital. The setting was a perfect place to consider what’s been going on in Washington, D.C. and how it affects the Utah economy.

I’ll warn you right up front that I have a thesis in mind. It goes something like this: Gov. Gary R. Herbert should reopen the state’s Washington, D.C. office to improve Utah’s federal outcomes and strengthen the Utah economy.

We live at a time when states must have an active and relevant voice in our nation’s capital. The federal government has become so large, so dominant and so misdirected that states must fight for improved policies. You can’t take on the federal government from the hinterlands. You have to be in the game, with an experienced staff and inside the beltway.

A little history is helpful here. Six years ago, Gov. Jon M. Huntsman closed Utah’s two-person Washington, D.C. office. At the time, the governor’s spokesperson said, “We have five offices in Washington,” referring to Utah’s three house members and two senators. The thinking was that the Utah congressional delegation had sufficient firepower to represent our interests. Why did the governor’s office need to be involved?

I was immediately skeptical. I had watched as Gov. Michael O. Leavitt skillfully used his Washington office to command a unified state agenda. His staff worked regularly with staff from the Utah congressional delegation, federal departments and the White House. Each month, Leavitt would travel to D.C. and convene the delegation to discuss our state’s common priorities: sensible wilderness designation, self-sufficiency-based welfare reform, prudent federal funding and balanced environmental regulations. The staff-level work took away much of the political awkwardness. By the time the principals got together, most of the hard work had been negotiated, worked and reworked. These meetings weren’t about political posturing—they were about the betterment of our state and the performance of our economy.

Now flash forward six years and consider how the system is working. I’m told that since January, Herbert and the Utah congressional delegation have met face to face two times as a group to discuss Utah’s interests in Washington. I’m also told that when they do meet, it’s dysfunctional. The chemistry is just too weird for the aspiring politicians. Just think of Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Sen. Orrin Hatch trying to work on an important state issue together right now. Redistricting realities produce the same chemistry for Rep. Jim Matheson. Herbert, a man who is making a meaningful difference as our governor, deserves their respect, but does he get it?

The frustration level with the Utah congressional delegation has apparently hit a tipping point with some. Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart wrote in a scathing editorial published last month in the Daily Herald that the federal delegation, “atrophies in the airless echo chamber of Washington, D.C.”

Is it an airless echo chamber? It sure seems like it with immigration. I also haven’t seen much progress with public lands or the economy. The seriousness of Utah’s 100,000-plus unemployed hasn’t seemed to stimulate congressional unity. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see the Utah congressional delegation speak with one voice on matters central to our state’s future prosperity? With four Republicans and one moderate Democrat, isn’t that within reach?

Governors Norm Bangerter and Mike Leavitt served during the longest sustained economic expansion in state history with 11 consecutive years of 3 percent or higher job growth. Strong economies are a product of many things, but great economic leadership is a crucial ingredient. Herbert should reopen the Washington, D.C. office, staff it with experienced professionals and build a common Utah agenda for the entire delegation to embrace.