Atlantic Cities

Romney's Murky Urban Agenda

Romney's Murky Urban Agenda
Reuters

If Mitt Romney wins the presidency on Tuesday, it would be fair to say the direction his future administration might take on urban policy is a mystery.

The specific problems of cities have figured little into this year’s election – in the Republican primary and the general contest – in marked contrast to the many specific promises Obama made on this front four years ago (PolitiFact has kept close tabs on the president's follow-through here). The issue pages on Romney's website make no mention of transportation, public transit, poverty programs, smart growth or climate change, and only cursory mention of housing ("Independent economists estimate that the [Romney] plan will create 12 million jobs by the end of his first term, an essential element to ending the housing crisis").

Romney has left literally no trail – in opposition or support – on the individual federal programs, such as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities and Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants, that have been designed over the last four years to help local communities creatively tackle the intertwined challenges of housing, transportation and the environment. Mitt Romney the Management Consultant could very well find something to love in such silo-busting, locally nimble initiatives. Sprawl is, after all, the very definition of inefficiency. And as governor of Massachusetts, Romney was in fact an active proponent of smart-growth policies to curb it. He once spoke of New England, as Alec MacGillis writes in The New Republic, like a stereotypically liberal-sounding urban planner: "We don’t want to become like Houston."

But as with so many of his positions from that time, Romney has since shied away from these issues while running for president – or simply stopped talking about them all together. For a man trying to win the trust of conservatives suspicious of the caricature of urban policy in "Agenda 21" conspiracy theories, it's no surprise that Romney has said little about smart growth, complete streets, mass transit or density (his Office of Commonwealth Development in Massachusetts was an early precursor to the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, although it wouldn’t be the first state innovation Romney disavows at the federal level).

And so, for residents and policy advocates preoccupied with the future of cities, it’s hard to say what a Romney presidency might mean for them. Would he take office as the pragmatic efficiency consultant and Massachusetts moderate, or as the "severe conservative" allied with House Republicans who have taken to disdaining bike lanes? Romney’s campaign turned down our request to plumb the candidate’s views on urban policy in more detail. And so, we’re offering here our best guess for what might happen should Romney win on Tuesday, based on his record in Massachusetts, his statements since then, his running mate’s history, and the temperature within his own party.

Housing and Urban Development
Here is one thing Romney has said, from a private fundraiser in the spring: "I’m going to take a lot of departments in Washington, and agencies, and combine them… Things like Housing and Urban Development, which my dad was head of, that might not be around later."

We’re skeptical that a President Romney would actually try (or ever succeed) to kill this entire agency. But it is quite possible that initiatives within it would be de-funded, or that progress would stall for the next four years on inter-agency partnerships and current HUD priorities. HUD's Community Development Block Grant program faces perennial funding threats. HUD also sits at one corner of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, along with the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency. The partnership was formed under Obama to help communities (and the federal government) coordinate on local issues that cut across all three departments. Within it, HUD also created competitive Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants, a kind of merit-based Race to the Top for regional planning with a pool of $100 million a year that was distributed to cities as diverse as Houston, Fresno, Seattle and Detroit before the money dried up (Portland, by the way, applied for but did not get one).

All of these programs should theoretically be bipartisan, but they were repeatedly targeted (and some de-funded) by House Republicans and would easily fall victim to future budget cuts in Washington. The future of this agency will also be heavily shaped by who Romney appoints to head it. His transition team includes former HUD secretary Steve Preston, who led the agency for the final nine months of the George W. Bush presidency amid the deteriorating housing crisis. (He had a background at the time in private-sector finance, not housing, but got decent marks for his short tenure. A philosophy we expect Romney agrees with: "For the most part, the government is not competent to deliver housing.") As our colleagues at National Journal write, there’s been scant buzz on who Romney might appoint to lead the agency next, perhaps because "Romney himself has signaled little interest in the post." Maybe former New York Representative Rick Lazio?

Smart Growth
As governor, Romney signed legislation called Chapter 40R designed to entice local communities to pursue more high-density, smart-growth development. But that effort – like the Massachusetts Office of Commonwealth Development – ultimately didn’t amount to much. Since then, the term "smart growth" has hardened into a kind of bogeyman for many conservatives. A House appropriations bill earlier this year, penned by Paul Ryan, tried to eliminate funding for the EPA’s Office of Smart Growth (a program that predates Obama).

The GOP platform adopted in Tampa in August also went out of its way to spell out the party’s opposition to Agenda 21. On other areas, Romney the candidate disagreed with his party platform, but the Agenda 21 inclusion there shows how deeply embedded within the party suspicion of smart growth has become. And a Republican administration will have a hard time embracing such policies with a still-hostile GOP majority in the House.

Transportation
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney followed a fix-it-first policy on highway spending, and his state DOT issued a new highway design manual pushing local communities toward more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. All good signs. But in Congress, transportation has lately become a partisan issue split along an overly simplified cars-vs.-transit (read: cities-vs.-suburbs) narrative. Earlier versions of the House transportation bill sought to eliminate dedicated funding for mass transit, as well as bike and pedestrian support.

Under a Republican House with a Romney presidency, walkability and "complete streets" initiatives could follow a fate similar to Big Bird’s, as miniscule budget items singled out for "savings." Federal support for mass transit poses a bigger long-term problem. The Highway Trust Fund is currently funded by gas tax receipts, which are dwindling as fewer people drive and fuel-efficiency goes up. A Republican administration might be more supportive of innovative tolls and congestion pricing to pay for roads, but those solutions don’t do much for transit. Romney has also called for the privatization of Amtrak.

The current DOT head, Ray LaHood, is a Republican, but he's already announced he's moving on even if Obama wins a second term. Other names floating around: House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair and author of the aforementioned bill John Mica ("When you start getting into the inner city, the federal government has less of a role to play" in transportation) or Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (whose state is a national model for auto dependency).

Gas and Cars
There was one odd moment during the second presidential debate when both Romney and Obama seemed to be arguing from the same presumption that it is the federal government’s role to keep gas prices low. If this is actually Romney’s position, then transportation policy becomes a matter of increasing domestic oil output, not enhancing commuting alternatives to cars. Federal transportation policy, however, should be framed as a matter of moving people to opportunity and goods to market, not keeping pump prices low. When he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney once vowed to cut the number of SUVs in the state fleet, but he has more recently criticized Obama for dramatically increasing CAFE fuel-economy standards (perhaps Obama’s biggest environmental accomplishment, though that's a fairly low bar). Auto industry watchers have predicted that Romney may roll back those standards, as well as tax credits for electric vehicles.

The Environment
This is one of the areas on which Romney has most notably shifted policy over the years. While he was governor, Massachusetts helped create an innovative regional cap-and-trade program, but Romney pulled the state out of it at the last minute. He has since  wavered from his earlier statements on the man-made causes of climate change. The global issue is also an intensely local one for coastal cities, as last week’s events illustrate. If Romney no longer believes a connection exists between climate change and urban calamity (with a federal role to play in addressing it), New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg clearly does. He somewhat surprisingly endorsed Obama last week, citing his efforts on climate change.

Romney has otherwise stated his intention to roll back environmental regulation. National Journal offers this suggestion for who might lead that effort at the EPA: "Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has led the Lone Star State’s ambitious attack on several of EPA’s clean-air rules, is one of the top state officials the campaign is considering." Meanwhile, the woman who once advised Romney as governor on climate issues in fact now works for the Obama Administration.

Disaster Recovery
This is another nationwide issue that has taken a distinctly urban edge in the last week, with pundits focusing anew on Romney’s earlier suggestion that FEMA's responsibilities should be devolved to the states – or, even further, to the private sector. If such a policy were in place today, it's arguable how well New York or New Jersey would be managing their own disaster recovery in the face of, well, a massive disaster. The New York Times editorialized to that effect last week: "A Big Storm Requires Big Government."

Poverty programs
Romney has given few specifics in this area, vaguely reasserting his main campaign themes – reducing the debt and creating "12 million new jobs” – as solutions to poverty. His broad budget proposal (capping federal spending at 20 percent of GDP) would likely heavily impact domestic poverty programs, although he has famously not spelled out specific targets for individual initiatives like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) or Section 8 housing vouchers. One analysis, by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, has projected that cuts under Romney’s budget to SNAP could kick 10 to 14 million people out of the program by 2016. People live in poverty all over the country, but poverty also concentrates in cities. As Next American City has pointed out, one in 10 dollars in the New York City food economy comes from SNAP benefits.

Obama's Department of Education also created the Promise Neighborhoods program, modeled off of the Harlem Children's Zone, targeting grants to communities that would coordinate comprehensive, "cradle-to-career" services for children living in high-poverty areas. The program was modeled off a private initiative built entirely without government money, and we suspect it is the type of innovative anti-poverty public-private partnership Romney would support over direct cash payments to the poor.

Taxes
Both Romney and Obama have talked of wanting to overhaul of the tax code. The debate has focused on what this might mean for the wealthiest Americans, but another issue lurks here: The federal tax code has a significant influence in the form and development of communities, from the home mortgage interest deduction that fueled the growth of suburbs to incentives (including one set to expire next year) that encourage green building and redevelopment. The mortgage deduction is a sacred cow to both parties. But the tax code could more broadly be amended – while we’re already planning to rewrite it – to promote principles of "livability" [PDF], or walkable, transit-oriented and infill development (these ideas also fall under the broader banner of "location efficiency," another concept that practically sounds as if it came from a management consultant). The tax code could, for instance, expand incentives for energy-efficient commercial buildings, and enhance the real estate tax provisions for new projects that embrace federally defined principles of livability or that locate within designated livable communities. The tax code could also permanently correct the pretax commuter benefit imbalance that heavily favors people who pay to park at work over those who ride public transit there. All of this would require an administration comfortable talking about why livability matters.

Gun Control
Another issue on which Romney has been clear. From his issue statement, Romney will "enforce the laws already on the books" but "does not support adding more laws and regulations that do nothing more than burden law-abiding citizens while being ignored by criminals." Cities like Chicago and Washington that have already tried in the past (and been thwarted in the courts) to expand handgun restrictions will get no sympathy from a Romney administration.

More Reading
Still want more? Here’s our Romney reading list if you’ve run out of things to do between now and Tuesday night:

All photos via Reuters

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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