In the wake of the enactment of Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief and stimulus legislation — which distributed $1.9 trillion to a wide range of individuals, businesses, and state and local governments — it has not gone unnoticed that some beneficiaries are more grateful than others. In particular, some Republican state leaders are resisting the Biden administration and all its works in the bitter aftermath of the 2020 elections and the January 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C.
As Ron Brownstein observes, the situation may tempt the Biden administration to bypass recalcitrant state governments and work directly with urban and suburban local governments that are Democratic-run or at least more amenable to the active role the federal government will clearly take on economic, social, and environmental challenges if the new administration has anything to say about it:
Cities and their inner suburbs need an immediate lifeline from Washington to stabilize their finances after the devastation of the pandemic. But once those communities regain their balance, they could become crucial allies for Biden. By working with big metros, the president would be aligning federal policy with powerful economic, social, and electoral trends — and empowering local officials overwhelmingly sympathetic to his core objectives. If Biden can forge such partnerships, he could both ignite a new wave of local innovation and solidify the Democratic Party’s advantage in the fast-growing, diverse, and well-educated metro areas that have become the bedrock of its electoral coalition.
Metropolitan local governments need Washington as much as Washington needs them, as Brownstein indicates. And if Biden does try to forge direct fiscal and programmatic links to cities and counties, he will be reviving a strategy deployed most prominently by Lyndon Johnson during his Great Society and War on Poverty initiatives, which worked directly with local governments — and in some cases with community organizations it had created for that purpose — in lieu of often-reactionary state governors, particularly in the white racist South.
Although LBJ was the pioneer in establishing a direct federal-local relationship, the practice reached its apex under his successor, Richard Nixon, who embraced what he called a New Federalism to distribute money and power from Washington to state and local governments. The centerpiece of Nixon’s initiative was General Revenue Sharing, which distributed what was then a very high level of no-strings-attached aid, with about two-thirds going to cities and counties and one-third to states. This period led to the establishment of the Community Development Block Grant Program, which is today the largest surviving federal program with a component channeling dollars directly to local governments.
By the time Ronald Reagan took office, conservative thinking about Federalism focused on devolving government responsibilities to the states, rather than sharing revenues with states and localities. GRS was a frequent target of Reagan-era budget cuts. Even before Reagan took office, Congress had knocked out the state share of the program; it was finally killed altogether in 1986. A bit later, another vestige of the era of direct federal-local assistance, the Urban Development Action Grants, bit the dust.
Perhaps these setbacks for a federal-local relationship weren’t as definitive as they looked at the time. As Brownstein observes, Biden’s first elected office was on the New Castle County Council in Delaware, and he often worked with mayors on Obama-administration economic initiatives. More important, in key areas like climate-change policy, urban and suburban governments eager to take action to promote energy efficiency and reduce reliance on automobiles may provide the only partners available to his administration. The growing political alignment of large cities and their inner suburbs makes regional policy solutions more feasible than ever with some help from Washington:
“What I see is a coalition of business, civic, and philanthropic leaders around the country committing to a set of national goals through local action,” [Brookings Institution’s Amy] Liu told me. “I could imagine CEO circles with mayors in different parts of the country committing to drive those goals in those regions, and the federal government could easily align their resources to help regions meet their goals.”
If Biden does move in this direction, it will cut against a lot of political traditions and even constitutional arrangements. States clearly have a central role in the Founders’ conception of Federalism, and, technically speaking, cities and counties are creatures of state constitutions and laws. They also play a large role in the domestic governance of a country in which the central government provides few direct services outside of national defense (e.g., in the huge federal-state Medicaid program, wherein the Supreme Court famously decided states could not be forced to carry out the expansion contemplated in the Affordable Care Act).
But the political logic Brownstein writes about for reviving a direct federal-local relationship is compelling, particularly when large states like Florida and Texas are governed by Republicans who would rather resign than do anything to help make the Biden presidency a success. Biden’s emulating not just FDR but LBJ is a development that should not surprise anyone.