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Does Breaking Down Policy Silos Mean the End of Federalism?

Samuel Staley
June 25, 2009, 7:55pm

Neal Peirce weighs in on the Obama Administration's ambitious efforts to break down "silos" of policy implementation, but he takes it a step further with dramatic implications for the future of Federalism.

Urban analysts, particularly those with a progressive bent and a non-pluralist ideology of what cities should look like and how they should function, have long lamented the tendancy to think of housing, environment, and transportation as separate policy issues. I am sympathetic to that argument because, in the real world, we live in an integrated system that does not respect particular areas of expertise. But, I'm not ready to scrap the basic structure of the U.S. Constitution and undermine the checks and balances of Federalism to do it.

Others are not so concerned. As Peirce writes:

This spring the new president’s Transportation and Housing Secretaries–Ray LaHood and Shaun Donovan–made a public pledge to collaborate in joint field work of their departments. On June 16 the new Environmental Protection Agency chief, Lisa Jackson, joined in under the banner of advancing more “livable,” sustainable American communities. In the near future, it’s like Energy Secretary Steven Chu will also align his department with the alliance.

The principles the group is enumerating are amazingly broad. Transportation choices are to go far beyond roadways, with a likely focus on transit to reduce foreign oil dependence, improve air quality and cut back greenhouse gas emissions. Government-assisted housing will be located near workplaces and/or transit to increase economic competitiveness and let hard-pressed families reduce high combined shelter and commuting costs. In lieu of sprawl subsidies, government assistance will be targeted toward support of existing neighborhoods and communities.

Setting aside for a moment the problematic proposition that there is an "optimal" urban form (so-called Smart Growth that is high density, walkable, and transit oriented),  the real problem with this proposal has to do with the conscious subversion of state and local governance. At the begining of Peirce's article, for example, he states:

"The silos loom highest at the federal level, where massive departments from Transportation to Commerce to Labor rarely speak and almost never work together.

"Borders proliferate closer to home, dividing our metro areas into hundreds of economically linked but separately governed cities and suburbs. And borders, as state lines, plunge straight through such massive citistate regions as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis."

In short, one of the biggest barriers to progressive government approaches to solving these problems is not just the silos but the Federalist structure of government. Federalism essentially splits responsibilities for governing between the national governent (Federal Government) and the states. Cities (and by extention urban regions) are creatures of state government, not the federal government.

So, to really break down silos and implement an integrated approach to regulating city growth, we need regions with independent identies and authorities. In principle, we could create a new tier of Federalism, but this would require a Constitutional convention which would likely be very messy. (The last time we ended up throwing out the Articles of Confederation and writing an entirely new Constitution.)

In reality, the Federal government will continue to undermine state authority and responsibility by leveraging funding to build up the independent power of cities and extending federal regulation over states. Moreover, policymakers in large urban areas will probably welcome this circumvention because it allows them to completely sidestep state governments which are not necessarily aligned with their priorities. The Obama Administration, on the other hand, is aligned with their priorities and sympathetic to their policy agenda--more transit, more subsidized housing, greater federal funding of a slew of urban programs that can't be financed from their dwindling tax base.

Again, Peirce's observations are worth highlighting:

"But it’s [Obama's White House Office of Urban Affairs] known to be mulling one lead idea: challenging governments and civic leaders across regions to come up with their own ideas for joined-up metro-wide transportation, energy, housing and environmental projects. Federal departments could then negotiate the details and help fund proposals with the most impact for sustainability and livable communities.

"Metro regions, says Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, new president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, are such critical linchpins of the national economy that they need direct relationships with the federal government to bolster their livability and global competitiveness.

"Nickels and Tom Cochran, the Mayors Conference’s veteran executive director, favor going outside center city boundaries to create political alliances with executives of the large suburban counties. It’s time, says Cochran, “to form a political operation to demand” more effective federal response to entire metros’ needs.

Once again, we see momentum building for a European style progressiveism fundamentally based on a redistributionist view of government and growth that diminishes local governance while centralizing authority in the national government. We're looking more like Europe every day.

Other recent posts on Federalism can be found here and here.


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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