How Being Governor Did (and Didn't) Prepare Mike Rounds for Senate
Sen. Mike Rounds’ day was jam-packed. Thursday, Jan. 29, less than a month into his first term, South Dakota’s junior senator needed to be in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in the morning, where two important hearings were going on at once: the Banking Committee was considering legislation to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and in Armed Services, three former secretaries of state were testifying on national security. Right in the middle of the hearings, Rounds had to preside over the Senate floor for an hour, a job intended to familiarize freshmen with procedures.
“Difficult” is how Rounds, a man used to setting his own agenda, describes time management in the Senate.
Such is life in one of the nation’s most deliberative elected bodies, where hectic day-to-day schedules belie reality, which is that most things get done at a snail’s pace here. It’s a system this year’s crop of 13 newcomers – 12 Republicans and a lone Democrat – will have to get used to. But Rounds has one advantage over his colleagues: his eight years as governor of South Dakota.
Rounds was chief executive of the Mount Rushmore State from 2003 until 2010, enjoying high approval ratings and winning reelection easily in 2006 – a Rasmussen poll had him at 62 percent approval in October 2010, just before he left office, according to The Washington Post. Rounds then went back to the private sector, running an insurance and real estate agency before announcing a 2014 Senate run. He won in November with just over 50 percent of the vote.
With the addition of Rounds, there are now 10 former governors serving in the U.S. Senate: four Republicans, five Democrats and an independent. Rounds agrees with conventional wisdom that says governors, who run sprawling bureaucracies and manage their own agendas, suffer culture shock in the crawling pace of the Senate, surrounded by 99 other lawmakers with different ideas and goals.
Rounds said his experience as a governor will allow him to navigate the Senate, find issues with bipartisan agreement and get things done. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be an adjustment, and his first month in Washington has already produced some challenges.
“Some weeks have been very slow and you’re wondering why we’re not getting more done. Other weeks we’re moving things through at a fairly rapid pace and we’d like more of an opportunity to look at some of the amendments before you’re actually voting on them, but that’s something that we’ll get used to,” Rounds told RealClearPolitics in an interview outside the Senate chamber. “The flow will go from very slow to very fast, and we just have to be prepared to be nimble in the process.”
Rounds comes along at an interesting time in Senate history, with Congress entrenched in seemingly endless partisan bickering throughout President Obama’s administration. Republicans complained loudly and often for the past six years about the way then-Majority Leader Harry Reid ran the Senate, keeping a tight lid on the amendment process and avoiding votes on bills Democrats disagreed with. Democrats, on the other hand, accused the GOP of being obstructionists and “the party of no.”
Now, with the Senate back into Republican control, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised a return to regular order, debating bills and allowing amendments, and indeed, senators spent most of January on the Keystone XL pipeline, with dozens of amendment votes, including 18 in one day.
Sen. John Thune, the senior senator from South Dakota and third-ranking Republican in the Senate, called the past few weeks “very much a baptism by fire,” saying that new senators were thrown into a legislative process that moved much more quickly than it had in years past. "Talk about having to hit the ground running and figuring out right away how the legislative process works."
Yet Democrats wasted little time employing the same tactics they denounced Republicans for when they were in the majority. When the chamber moved from Keystone into funding for the Department of Homeland Security last week, Democrats filibustered the GOP leadership, voting three times in three days against debating a bill that would fund DHS while derailing Obama’s executive action delaying deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants.
Rounds’ experience with those two bills informed his observation that things often move either too quickly or too slowly in the Senate. The Keystone debate was positive because there was a free flow of ideas, but there wasn’t always time to look into amendments carefully before voting on them, Rounds said. With DHS funding, Rounds said Republicans want to bring the bill up for debate, even if they don’t necessarily agree with the House provision to reverse Obama’s immigration order, but Democrats are blocking anything from moving forward.
“It’s a matter of getting to that point where each of the two parties has a certain position of strength,” Rounds said, but at this point in the process, neither side trusts the other to compromise.
Though he served as governor for two terms, Rounds isn’t new to legislating. Before his gubernatorial run, he spent a decade in the South Dakota State Senate, including six years as majority leader. Rounds said the process so far in Washington is very similar to what he experienced legislating at the state level.
“I think he really knows the drill better than most who come here who haven’t had that dual background,” said Sen. John Hoeven, the former governor of North Dakota. “As a governor you can really set your agenda much more, whereas it’s much harder to do that in the Congress or in the Senate. But I think in Mike’s case he really comes well prepared because he’s had experience doing both.”
In 2013, ex-governors in the Senate started the Former Governors Caucus to network and meet across party lines. Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, said former governors may not always agree on policy, but they are resolutely fixated on getting results.
“As governors, we often had to direct policy initiatives, work closely with state legislators – and at times, serve as a bridge to get things done,” King said in a statement. “As a result, we understand the importance of compromise, of finding middle ground, and of responsible governing.”
Rounds has met with the caucus once, and said members share similar concerns about the fiscal state of the country and the lack of a balanced budget. In one of his first acts in Washington, he co-sponsored legislation to create a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget. He said there is less accountability on Capitol Hill than in a governor’s office when it comes to reining in spending.
In South Dakota, Rounds said, if the government spends more than it takes in, there’s a “nuclear option” that triggers a statewide property tax assessment. If that were to happen, he said, every politician would face a tough path to reelection.
“There was a hammer built in by the founding fathers of our state that says you will maintain a reasonable budget and if not, you’re going to catch holy hell,” Rounds told RCP. “At the federal level, this is not the case. There is nothing within the Constitution that stops you from literally spending money but not taking the responsibility for raising the money that you intend to spend. It’s easy to spend money if you don’t have to look at the taxpayer and say this is how much money I’m spending that is your money. And that’s a terrible way to run a government.”
Rounds is the only former governor in this year’s class of newcomers to the Senate, while six of the freshmen served across the Capitol in the House of Representatives. Thune, a congressman for six years before running for Senate in 2004, said coming from the House has some advantages.
“The Senate’s a very different institution with very different timing and a very different pace and so you just have to adapt to that,” Thune said. “But I would think coming in from the outside would be harder for sure, simply because House members have a little bit of a feel for how things work here.”
Rounds agreed with Thune, saying that just knowing directions around Capitol Hill and knowing committee structures helps former House members hit the ground running. His background as a governor makes him always on the watch for inefficiency and ways to consolidate and problem solve, though he knows the importance of building coalitions for legislation, thanks to his time in the state senate.
Even the simplest of things take time in the U.S. Senate, however, like getting permanent office space – which hasn’t happened for Rounds yet – and meeting the rest of the senators. Thune said it can be hard for constituents to understand that.
“Sometimes I think there’s a real rush to get fully staffed and operational and I think patience, just taking it in stride, taking your time, is really good advice,” Thune said. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to shake it up a little bit when you get the chance. Believe me, I believe this place could be shaken up a little bit.”
For Rounds, one of the best parts of the first month in Washington has been getting to know his fellow lawmakers. He hopes for bipartisanship on certain issues, including defense appropriations and sequestration, executive branch overreach and – he told RCP days before it passed with nine Democratic senators joining Republicans – the Keystone XL pipeline.
He sees former governors as crucial to that bipartisan success.
“There are good people on both sides of the aisle who really do want to find a path forward,” Rounds said. “If we can kind of stick together as a group and continue to talk, we’ll find areas of agreement that might surprise other members of Congress.”