Congressional changes will affect cities, unfunded mandates on the agenda
Q How will the recent election affect the issues facing cities?
A The change in party leadership will have significant and long-term impacts on the nation’s cities. Clearly, it will result in a less activist domestic government, providing greater flexibility and fewer unfunded federal mandates. At the same time, it almost certainly will reduce federal resources to local governments to address issues as disparate as public safety, infrastructure and human needs. The three areas where the change would have consequences are the deficit, disparities and preemption. On the deficit issue, already a battle over the heart and soul of the Republican party has commenced, with deficit hawks versus supply siders. When the supply siders prevailed in 1981, they promised deep tax cuts for the wealthy would produce enough new revenues to balance the budget. The decade produced the highest deficits and national debt ever, the deepest cuts in federal assistance to local governments and more than 180 new, unfunded federal mandates. The conservative Republican side wants to balance the federal budget before enacting new tax cuts, and it wants to control entitlement spending – a task critical to the future of American cities. As for disparities, the rate of growth between inner city per capita income and that of the suburbs has grown for more than 40 years. Current federal entitlement and tax expenditure policies contribute to and foster this accelerating disparity. A major rethinking of the federal government’s role, such as (House Speaker Newt) Gingrich has proposed, offers an opportunity to re-address the federal government’s relationship to local governments and how broader federal programs, such as Medicare, affect this issue of disparities. The initial proposals in the Contract with America create a sense that scarce federal resources will be reduced in cities but significantly increased for the Pentagon and outlying suburbs and exurbs. On preemption, the good news is that an era of “Uncle Sam knows best” is over. But the different leadership is likely to replace unfunded mandates with different kinds of costly burdens and preemptions. For instance, welfare reform proposals to make legal immigrants and mothers under the age of 18 ineligible for federal benefits and to cut off other families under arbitrary time limits create a huge burden for cities.
Q What are likely to be the immediate consequences of the election?
A Rearranging the federal government’s priorities and setting a new direction. President Clinton’s priorities for physical and human infrastructure investment face almost insuperable hurdles. The Republican agenda promises an end to mandates and a greater flexibility and responsibility at the state and local levels.
Q What topics that specifically affect cities are likely to be addressed?
A The new Congress is certain to address federal reources that go directly to cities through the budget and appropriations process. It will reopen the crime bill, focusing on prevention programs slated to go directly to cities. It is almost certain to reconsider legislation to create an information superhighway. It will devote significant time to efforts to reform the nation’s welfare system – an issue with indirect but far-reaching consequences for the cities. NLC President Carolyn Long Banks has met with Speaker Gingrich to put forward an agenda that will create a constructive engagement for rethinking the roles and relationships of the cities and federal government.
Editor’s Note: In this Q&A, Frank Shafroth, Director of Policy and Federal Relations for the National League of Cities, shares his views on the November elections and their likely effects on the cities.