Reconnecting Washington to cities

Recent presidents either neglected or demeaned urban areas.

Former President Ronald Reagan justified his neglect by arguing that cities are not mentioned in the Constitution. President George H.W. Bush, though unnerved by the Los Angeles riots, vetoed urban policy legislation. President Bill Clinton counted mayors among his friends but, like Bush, his administration cited the “anger of the cities” as the motivation for addressing urban problems. President George W. Bush promised assistance to cities prior to his 2000 election, yet by 2007, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called Bush’s neglect criminal. 

So the question is: Will President Barack Obama be different?

As a presidential candidate, Obama emphasized that the federal government must partner with cities, the places where most jobs, people, and economic opportunities exist.

Now, as president, he must argue that cities offer a great return on investment and a path out of the recession. With the economy still faltering, he should push for direct aid to cities through the Local Jobs for America Act or one of the similar jobs packages that would preserve vital public services while accelerating recovery. This is crucial because the federal stimulus package directed aid to states and ignored the fiscal plight of cities.

Obama has created the first-ever White House Office of Urban Affairs but it needs a higher profile in his administration and on Capitol Hill to change how the federal government approaches urban areas. Cities long have suffered from Washington’s anti-urban bias in several areas of policy. For example, highway dollars are funneled through state legislatures that favor cars and trucks over mass transit; homeowners get four times more money than renters on average; and immigrants who invigorate cities are harmed by overzealous federal enforcement tactics playing out today at the local level.

To his credit, Obama is trying to correct this bias by reforming how federal agencies like HUD, DOT, and the EPA interact with each other when creating initiatives that affect urban areas. Previous administrations ignored what every household knows: choosing where to live involves a consideration of both transportation costs and housing costs.  Efforts to spur community development were doomed to inefficiency and underperformance by separating housing and transportation policy. The new Sustainable Communities program moves in the opposite direction, connecting affordable housing to transportation alternatives, grocery stores, good schools, and other community services.

Despite greater interaction, though, HUD, DOT, the EPA and other agencies have distinct missions that fall short of a mandate to advance the best policies in cities and for cities. So there is a void for the White House Office of Urban Affairs to fill. It should forcefully amplify the link between economic growth and cities, and explain the importance of urbanizing federal policy by offering actionable legislative recommendations to Congress that underscore how serving the needs of urban areas benefits the country at large.

A beefed-up office could also promote to Congress and the president landmark urban policies that address social, economic, and environmental problems, as it has already with Philadelphia’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative. This is a critical function of the office that could fundamentally alter how Washington interacts with cities small and large.

Consider Los Angeles. Mayor Villaraigosa wants to accelerate construction of 12 transit lines in 10 years instead of 30 years, creating a hundred thousand jobs and reducing harmful emissions in the process. Politically and economically, the plan is compelling. It requires federal assistance in the short term but is deficit-neutral in the long term: L.A. would repay Washington with revenue from a sales tax that passed by voter referendum.

Mayor Villaraigosa should not have to go hat-in-hand to Washington to pitch a project that would transform car-dependent Los Angeles, the world’s nineteenth largest economy. The Office of Urban Affairs should advocate on Capitol Hill for smart, viable ideas from mayors, proposing funding mechanisms and defending urban innovation.

Although there is an urban caucus in the House, the Senate disproportionately represents non-urban areas and legislates on their behalf. Today, farm bills are far more common than city bills, even though, historically speaking, American cities have always laid the groundwork for national progress and transformation: advancements in mass transit, workplace rights, environmental protection, racial and economic integration, job creation, affordable housing, and education all began in urban areas and then spread to other areas.

It’s time for urban and non-urban members of Congress to recognize common ground. And the White House must do its part to ensure this happens on Obama’s watch.

Harry Moroz, a research associate at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, has written widely on urban policy for The Atlantic, The San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton
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