THE BLOG
07/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Getting Steamy About the Administration's Unrequited Love

America's mayors, as Politico puts its, are "steamed" about the White House's decision to pull hundreds of administration officials out of last weekend's annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Ostensibly, the administration's decision resulted from a policy not to cross picket lines, in this case picket lines assembled at the Conference because of a 10-year-old union dispute between a Providence firefighters' union and Providence Mayor David Cicilline.

Unfortunately, the Conference of Mayors, an organization created during the New Deal to lobby for the interests of mayors and cities at the federal level, had planned the event around the attendance of administration officials: the four-day event was originally designed to focus on implementation of the stimulus package. An American Recovery and Reinvestment Act "resource center" was to hook mayors up with federal officials so that they could learn the technical details of applying for and implementing stimulus funds. After all, it's not every day that the Mayor of, say, Hendersonville, Tennessee has the chance to get technical with a federal official.

But now the mayors are crying foul. Miami Mayor Manny Diaz scolded that the "administration is setting a very dangerous precedent" and Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi noted "a certain arrogance" in the administration's treatment of the mayors.

The Obama administration's decision certainly seems like a serious mistake at a time when the White House is already coming under attack, from do-nothings like Senator Tom Coburn but also from the USCM, for (perceived) missteps in implementing the stimulus package. Indeed, in his overview of Franklin Roosevelt's relationship with the USCM during the New Deal, Richard Flanagan describes how useful the organization was to the president:

[The USCM's] lobbying efforts provided countervailing pressure against conservative economizers and made the administration's requests seem more centrist to Congressional moderates. In order to better use the USCM's pressure from the left, the administration gave publicity and legitimacy to the expenditure requests by working with the organization to generate information and statistics about the relief situation in the cities, and inviting the USCM's leaders to conferences at the White House, and to meetings with high ranking administration officials.

The USCM could certainly function as a formidable administration ally in promoting the successes of the stimulus, just as it promoted passage of the package by Congress. Thus, a "steamed" USCM -- who up until this weekend was extraordinarily cozy with the administration -- is probably not what the administration wants at this moment when the very merits of the stimulus are being questioned (and when 45% of Americans want to "cancel it", whatever that actually means).

That said, Politico also quoted Fred Siegel of the conservative Manhattan Institute, a reliable proponent of bad urban policy, who labeled the administration's handling of the situation "ham-handed" and blamed the dustup on constituent-based politics, nothing more than a low-level brawl between "coercive" unions and "corrupt" mayors. This led me to consider that the opposite of what Mr. Siegel said might be true. So then, what if the Obama administration was actually acting more strategically than anyone, from The Providence Journal to the interested mayors, has given it credit for?

In his article about the USCM during the New Deal, Flanagan talks about the importance of the mayors group as "the conduit between policy-making in Washington and the implementation process in the cities." As the New Deal aged, both the USCM and the Roosevelt administration identified a need to institutionalize this relationship. But the USCM soon became disinterested. Flanagan writes:

The mayors, caught up in the battle of defending the concrete gains of the New Deal, lost sight of the importance of structure and process to their interests.

In the end, the USCM became an advocate for more federal funding for cities, happy to ignore the "touchy political issue of the proper Federal role in the cities..."

True, this weekend's dustup between the mayors and the Obama administration seems more like the result of brinksmanship among Mayor Cicilline, the Providence firefighters, and the Conference organizers that the Obama administration steered clear of (probably wisely) until the combatants inflicted a black eye on the disinterested third (fourth?) party.

But given the Obama administration's purported commitment to cities -- evident in its urban agenda and in its creation of a White House Office of Urban Affairs -- perhaps the White House is prepared to implement a more institutionalized, bureaucratic partnership with cities than the USCM would offer. That would free the administration from the poor decision making that can result from interest-group influence, while still emphasizing the importance of interaction between federal officials and cities/mayors.

If the Obama administration pulled out of the meeting of the USCM to prepare for a regularized relationship with cities, it is certainly acting very slowly and very, very strategically. But the USCM's steam might be a result more of unrequited love than of an unjustified snub.