It’s hard to remember now, but at some point it was considered a stroke of genius: President George W. Bush and Republicans from across the country would celebrate their quadrennial party convention in New York City, site of the terrorist attacks that defined Bush’s first term. In New York, he’d be greeted by Michael Bloomberg, one of the few big-city Republican mayors, in a performance that would showcase Bloomberg’s national clout and Bush’s strength, compassion, and crossover appeal. All that would be left would be tabulating the Republican landslide.
What a fantasy. By the time the gathering starts on August 30, the host of this party, Mayor Bloomberg, will be quietly battling with his guests, President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress, on almost every issue of importance to the city. When Bush, Bloomberg, and the Republican leadership climb the stage at Madison Square Garden for their inevitable photo ops this summer, the tight smiles and awkward backslapping will mask a simmering feud between New York and Washington over billions of dollars that some say are being fleeced from the city. Just about the only thing Bloomberg’s alliance with the Republicans has gained him is a ballot line to run on.
When it comes to New York’s relationship with Bush, almost all the media attention since 9/11 has focused on whether Washington really delivered the $20 billion in post-attack aid that Bush promised the city. Some Democrats point out that almost $5 billion of that aid was in the form of tax breaks that were never used and are about to expire. Others complain that the $20 billion was a floor, not a ceiling, and that the city needs much more. But many Democrats privately concede that for the most part, Bush has kept his word on the $20 billion. “There is a collective thought out there that New York got screwed on 9/11 funds,” a senior aide to Senator Chuck Schumer whispered to me recently. “That is really not the case.”
The spotlight on the 9/11 money has obscured a more comprehensive look at how Bush and his Republican colleagues have treated New York over the past four years. From the parochial perspective of New York City, the problem with Bush and the Congress is that they seem to screw New York on everything else.
Each February, a team of Bloomberg’s wonks scours the Bush budget to figure out how bad its impact will be on the city. In April, the mayor releases the fruit of that process, a thick, richly detailed book that outlines New York City’s agenda in Washington. This obscure 300-page document is the bible for understanding how the Bush administration treats the city. Every federal issue of importance to New York is described along with a comparison of how the Bush administration and Congress plan to treat it. The book sometimes reads as if it were written by the Democratic National Committee. On issue after issue, the Bloomberg administration, sometimes in withering language, describes how Bush’s proposals are bad for New York. One of the most common phrases appearing in the book is “Position: Oppose.” It crops up again and again when summarizing the Bloomberg response to Bush policies.
Once upon a time, Bloomberg’s Republican pedigree was seen as an advantage in diverting federal money to the city. In fact, the opposite may be true.
On education, the mayor accuses Bush of shortchanging the No Child Left Behind Act. He criticizes Bush’s proposed cuts to federal funds for child care. He argues that Republicans promised $700 million to implement the new election law passed in the wake of the Florida debacle, yet Bush finds only $40 million in his budget for it. He opposes the proposed cuts to bioterrorism funds, the $110 million reduction in a program for dislocated workers, the $240 million cut to a program that helps New York City fight poverty, the elimination of Justice Department grants that Bloomberg uses to help fight drugs and pay 911 operators, the slashing of millions from public housing, a Republican proposal that would siphon transportation dollars from New York and ship them to states like Texas, and Bush’s paltry spending on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The criticisms go on and on. On criminal-justice issues, Bloomberg attacks the Republican approach to gun legislation as irresponsible. On the environment, he argues that new EPA rules would “directly threaten the City’s air quality,” opposes Bush’s cuts for money to clean up brownfields, and even insists that the Bush budget “risks dealing a mortal blow” to a program that is eradicating a nasty beetle from China destroying New York’s trees. The city hates Bush’s proposal to slash money to fight HIV/AIDS and argues that without more federal funds than Bush proposes for immunizations, thousands of New Yorkers might die.
All of these cuts are especially galling when one considers the most important fact about New York City’s relationship with the federal government. In 2002, the last year for which data are available, New Yorkers sent $65.9 billion in federal taxes to Washington, and yet the federal government sent only $54.5 billion back, according to the mayor’s office. In one year, more than $11 billion was sucked out of New York and redistributed across America by the Republicans in Washington who control the federal budget.
Of course, ’twas ever thus. New York has a long record of getting screwed by the Feds. Like the city, the state has always been a donor, paying more in federal taxes than it receives in federal funds and services. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan would get so angry about this bias that his staff would produce an annual report documenting all the ways his constituents were being robbed by the rest of the country. Much of this funding bias has its roots in the rise of the welfare state. Many of the formulas that allocate money for federal programs were written decades ago. Often they were devised with the egalitarian intent of using money from wealthier regions of the country to help poorer ones. “When the New Deal was enacted, New York was a rich state,” says Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who has represented Manhattan’s West Side for twelve years. “The New Deal built the infrastructure that allowed the South and West to rise. Who paid for all those dams? It came from New York and the other wealthy states. The federal allocation formulas created in the thirties were written to help these other states. We’re no longer the rich state, but the formulas haven’t been changed.”
Unfortunately for the city, formulas that have been devised much more recently repeat these inequities. In the Bush years, some of the largest new streams of federal money are for protecting the homeland and combating bioterrorism. For homeland security, there are two large pots of money that once seemed promising for the city but that have recently been turned into slush funds to satiate congressmen’s appetites for pork. One pot, known as the State Homeland Security Grant Program, was designed by Bush and Congress using a formula that awards money to every state without regard to the actual level of terrorist threat. Billions of dollars in funds for first responders have been doled out this way. New York has been an Al Qaeda target numerous times in the past eleven years, and yet the state ranks 49th in per capita funding in this grant program. In fact, Wyoming, not known as a top bin Laden target, will get $38.31 per capita this year, while New York will get $5.47. The entire program is purposely blind to the fact that New York City, according to the intelligence community, is the highest-priority target in America. “There are 435 members, and they all want to get a piece of this,” says an aide to Bloomberg.
Even worse, the one homeland-security program that actually factors threat levels into its allocation formula has been turned into pork. The Urban Areas Security Initiative, which was designed to deliver funds to cities at the top of Al Qaeda’s target list, started out as one of Washington’s great gifts to New York. In 2003, the city received a quarter of the funds, which were divvied out to just seven high-priority states. But the Bush administration and Congress have steadily increased the number of cities and other entities deemed “high risk.” There are now 80 on the list, and New York’s share of the money has dropped to less than 7 percent. Bloomberg and his aides complain that the city’s allotment of high-threat funding has been slashed by two thirds since last year. “The chairman of the Appropriations Committee is from Kentucky,” says a Bloomberg aide, explaining how sympathy for New York has given way to pork-barrel politics. “He doesn’t want to go home and say, ‘Well, gosh, guys, I don’t see any Al Qaeda here.’ He wants to take some home, too.” Louisville is slated to receive $9 million this year.