WASHINGTON — AT a glance, it's hard to distinguish the nation's governors from members of Congress. Not only have they been spending a lot of time in Washington lately, but they're also musing about the same issues: welfare, Medicaid, and balanced budgets.
Their visibility is no accident. As Congress prepares to surrender control of some federal programs to the states, and words like ''devolution'' and ''new federalism'' fill the air, governors have become first-stringers in the Washington game.
This week, at the annual conference of the National Governor's Association here, 40 state chief executives have been pressing their role as national policymakers, crafting compromises on two issues that continue to bedevil their Washington colleagues: Medicaid and welfare reform.
While the governors cannot legally dictate national policy, their suggestions carry tremendous clout.
The primary reason, says Charles Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, is experience. Governors such as Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson (R) and Michigan's John Engler (R) have spearheaded their own reforms and innovations, he notes, particularly in the area of welfare reform, where both men have earned federal waivers for overhauls of their welfare programs. ''A lot of this is driven by the issues,'' Professor Jones says. ''If the process of devolution is associated with all programs governors are dealing with, then the governors have every right to say, 'Wait a minute, let us into this.' ''
Moreover, some analysts say, there's a feeling in Congress and among voters that governors are more attuned to the practical details of implementing federal policies and are generally more attuned to the needs and wishes of their constituents.
''Governors are more in the business of running a company,'' says Wesley Smith, deputy director of the Governors' Forum at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. ''Most of them are under requirements to balance the budget every year and are more in tune with the economic reality of their own state.''
In Washington, Mr. Smith argues, politicians tend to become isolated from their constituents and can be co-opted by special interests on the national level, a problem governors don't have. ''The closer you get down to the local level, the more confidence people have in government,'' he says.
This image of governors as outsiders with a better feel for the public mood has heightened their political desirability. Republican presidential front-runner Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, has actively wooed Republican governors for endorsements, and several names, including Governors Thompson and Engler, have reportedly made his list of potential ticket mates.
Many governors, according to Smith, see this time as a great opportunity. ''The Republican Congress is more sympathetic to devolution and federalism than Democrats were,'' he says. ''Governors realize that unless they take the initiative now, many of these changes might never happen in Washington.''