Cities Should Be the Focus of Federalism

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Cities accelerate the spread of ideas and drive our national economy – but they are constrained in their ability to realize their full potential for their residents and for the nation.

(NLC)
(NLC)

In the first installment of this series, we looked at the basics of federalism and why it matters to cities. Part two focused on how affordable housing assistance has changed with the interpretation of federalism, and what that means for cities today, while part three examined federalism in the context of the American educational system. Part four focused on how local-federal partnerships support innovation and entrepreneurship, and today’s installment calls for more city-focused federalism.

Why should federalism focus on cities?

In 1932, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandéis famously wrote, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” This adage can be applied equally well to cities, which offer many advantages over federal and state governments.

Because of their limited geographies dense with human potential, cities accelerate the spread of ideas. They have become the drivers of our national economy. We can attribute this success to cities’ comparatively minimal bureaucracy, which allows them to respond quickly to changing technology and, in many instances, to act more pragmatically.

At the same time cities are innovating, they are providing a breadth of essential services to residents. Historian Kenneth Jackson once wrote, “Local governments in the United States have more responsibilities than municipal jurisdictions in other nations, and thus, they must themselves provide and pay for schools, policemen, fire protection, road repairs, sanitation and social services.”

Despite their role in our country, cities are faced with a lack of constitutional power. The federal government, over the last one hundred years, has embraced policies that have been notably anti-urban, including car subsidies, mortgage subsidies, substandard public housing, residential segregation and suburban land use laws. Coupled with the stifling attitude most state governments have towards localities, cities are constrained in their ability to realize their full potential for their residents and for the nation. This is why we need city-focused federalism.

What does city-focused federalism look like?

More resources. In today’s fiscal federalism – a carrot-and-stick approach to governing – money is everything. While cities generate most of their revenues from their own sources, intergovernmental aid is essential for jump-starting innovative projects and supporting necessary programs. Former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley once said, “Why should a city be mandated to do something by the federal government or state government without [being given] the money to do it?” City-focused federalism recognizes that cities need reliable funding from federal and state partners and not unfunded mandates.

Local decision-making. Cities should not have to wait on Congress to act in order to maintain highways, build transit systems, or spur new housing. Cities know which projects are critical, and will be responsible for maintaining them for years to come. City-focused federalism puts local governments in a position to set priorities and lead implementation. Federal funding formulas should reflect city priorities, or at least allow for flexibility at the local level. Passing more funding through to cities with fewer stipulations from the federal government will help catalyze this process.

Less preemption. Many state legislatures, which disproportionately represent non-urban constituents, have increased preemption of local authority on a number of issues. For example, local control over fiscal mechanisms is fundamentally important. Cities that have access to multiple revenue streams (sales, property and income) can tailor them to their local economies and preferences. However, the vast majority only have access to one or two streams of revenue. Reversing preemption and taxing limitations will only spur more innovation in cities. Moreover, granting home rule to more local governments will further enshrine the place of cities in the federal system.

A seat at the table. A strong federalist system relies on cooperation, not conflict, among the levels of government. The Obama administration set a positive precedent by placing former mayors in positions of influence and including local governments in important discussions, increasing the chances of local innovations becoming national policies. In the new administration, the voice of local governments deserves to be heard and respected. Furthermore, the creation of a national urban policy – something our country has long lacked – would go leaps and bounds towards affirming the importance of cities in America.

How do we achieve these goals?

Real change may not come without substantial shifts in politics and policy. More rights and protections for cities may need to come from a change not only in attitudes but in legislation. This is a daunting task. But the changes that city leaders create at the local level are often mirrored at the state and federal level – and by making their voices heard in statehouses and on Capitol Hill, local leaders can help change the nature of federalism in America.

To learn more about NLC’s efforts to promote more city-focused federalism – and make your voice heard at the federal level – join us at the Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., March 11-15.

Trevor Langan 125x150About the author: Trevor Langan is the Research Associate for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities.