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Harry Moroz

Harry Moroz

Posted March 12, 2009 | 06:13 PM (EST)

Not Your Mother's Federalism


Matt Yglesias at Think Progress has a good synopsis of a new Democracy article that both points out the importance of metropolitan regions to the nation's economic health and warns that current governance structures - really, federalism as we know it now - are constraining the combustive (in a good way) capacity of these areas.

The article, authored by metro guru Bruce Katz and the folks at Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program who have the ear of the current administration, emphasizes that:

Clearly, the nation needs a set of relationships between Washington and its metropolitan areas that places the well-being of metros at the center of American federalism.

The rethinking of federalism that Katz and Co. call for is ostensibly radical and the authors attempt to downplay the shift they advise. They embed it in the natural give and take of relationships in a federal system, writing that "Powers and responsibilities constantly shift between different levels of government."

This formulation unfortunately opens the article up to critiques like that of the urbanist Joel Kotkin who is concerned that Obama's Chicago roots and Katz's influence on the administration mean the centralization of urban policy making inside the White House. As I pointed out in Politico yesterday, such critiques unnecessarily breath life into a debate about centralization and decentralization that doesn't truly depict President Obama's proposed federal urban policy.

Indeed, the funding structures (grants to metropolitan planning organizations) and outcomes-based policymaking (e.g. funds for the reduction of automobile use rather than funds for light rail) that the article's authors advocate are anything but incremental departures from recent federal urban policy.

Still, the re-imagining that the article calls for is not without precedent. Indeed, Katz et al. are not striving for the creation of another (metropolitan) layer of government to stick between "federal" and "state" in the already complex federal-state-local hierarchy, as Yglesias's brief synopsis might seem to suggest. Instead, they argue that this layer in fact already exists via economic and social relationships (the definition of a metro area) and governance structures already in use (e.g. metropolitan planning organizations). The federal government, though, must recognize the importance of metropolitan regions and these existing governance structures and empower them.

The reliance on metros that the article argues for will, in fact, reduce tensions that frequently arise between cities and states (and between city and state agencies) competing for federal funds. Even as increased metropolitan-level authority saps some power and decision making authority from these state and local governments, metropolitan planning organizations are composed of representatives from state and local governments who can advocate local initiatives and represent local interests in the context of broader regional planning, limiting the democratic deficit. To be truly effective though, metropolitan-level thinking must seek to coordinate local and state decision making rather than simply transcend it.

The Democracy article is still more evidence that, contrary to what urban thinkers like Kotkin are writing, Obama's own rethinking of federal urban policy is more complex than a mere return to centralized decision making. Katz and the Metro Program at Brookings are a big tent group and perhaps paper over important distinctions between metros, urban areas, and even rural areas. But their advocacy for coordinated federal, state, and local problem solving as the starting point of a re-imagined federal urban policy is timely.