Atlantic Cities

Why the Federal Government Should Give More Power to Mayors

Why the Federal Government Should Give More Power to Mayors
Elena Olivo

“We’re being strangled by the lack of action at the federal level. That’s why mayors are where the action is.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed uttered these words during a panel discussion titled "Cities 2012: Are Cities the New Global Building Blocks?" at the New York Ideas forum Tuesday, co-presented by The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and the New-York Historical Society.

Reed and his fellow panelists, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and New York Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, talked a lot about the new report from the McKinsey Global Institute, which shows that 259 of the largest cities in the United States are responsible for 10 percent of global GDP. That economic significance, they argued, means that American cities merit way more clout than they get in the current political environment.

The mayors talked about the multitude of challenges facing American cities today – unemployment, pension and health care costs, outdated infrastructure, education, social inequity. All three emphasized that municipal government is more accountable, more innovative, and more responsive than federal government.

“I hope for the good of the country, cities continue to lead on these issues,” said Reed, whose hard-nosed pension reform deal attracted national attention last year. “Because if we wait for the federal government to move on issues like immigration and real job creation, then I think we’re going to be waiting for some time.”

Conversations and debates on the big issues of the day.

Reed pointed out that a huge proportion of the nation’s GDP is generated in cities, but that mayors still have a hard time getting the feds to pump money back into them. "If you look at the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, less than 10 percent of those dollars went into cities, where 80 percent of GDP occurs," he said. "We’re going to have to shift national politics, and we’re going to have to shift state politics. Governors have a better lobby than mayors do. That’s why they got 90 percent of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, when that money should have gone to cities. Because we deploy it faster, we’re more creative, and we’re more representative of the majority of the United States of America."

Steel concurred, noting that city governments operate with "a very short feedback loop" and can’t afford to spend a lot of time in theoretical policy debates. "I’ve worked in federal government," said Steel, who served in the Treasury Department during the George W. Bush administration. "There isn’t a lot of time spent discussing the Federalist Papers in city government.""

“Cities are more nimble," said Parker. "They’re 24/7 operations. I have to pick up the trash, and the toilets have to flush."

All three mayors conceded that tough economic times have made their jobs more difficult. But they also emphasized the inherent appeal of urban life, and the urban potential for opportunity and innovation.

"Cities have people, and they have possibilities," said Parker. "And whether you want a mate, or an education, or a job, or just new ideas, cities attract you."

That advantage should be fostered if the U.S. is to remain competitive in the world economy, said Reed.

“We are no longer in a position, globally, to have massive investment in rural areas while cities struggle,” he said. “That’s the paradigm we’re going to have to face up to."

Top image, from left: New York Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and Atlantic Media's Linda Douglass. (Elena Olivo)

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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