It’s a sad day when you have to start rooting for liars and hypocrites.
That thought occurred to me when I read the news of Congress’s likely axing of the budget for the Sustainable Communities Initiative. That’s the two-year-old program that attempted to pull together goals of three federal agencies — the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency — to encourage out-of-the-silos thinking by local and regional planners. Grants under the program required getting lots of folks who don’t normally talk to one another collaborating to integrate policies and programs covering infrastructure, environmental protection, economic development, public health, housing, transportation and transit, and land use.
Initiatives developed under the grants promised two things that critics of government consider impossible: cost-effectiveness and permanent changes for the better in the lives of citizens and in the prospects for broad ranging prosperity. Such idealism would have been a tough sell in the best of times. In the current era of political polarization, the concept was probably doomed from the get-go.
It would be a mistake, though, to see the collapse of an ambitious effort like this — or the failure of the Congressional Supercommittee to make a deal on deficit reduction, or, for that matter, the struggles to hold together the European Union — as an indicator of political paralysis. Politics is never paralyzed. It is merely pursued through alternative means. Roads, bridges and ports get built. Economic development initiatives discover funding sources. Projects find benefactors. And government is almost always a partner.
The time-tested method for securing government partnership, of course, is to become best buds with those who control purse strings. Which is why just about everybody from local governments to global corporations with a stake in government policy and government funding streams hires lobbyists. A lot of good stuff happens through the efforts of these “special interests.” A lot of bad stuff happens. The point is, that’s the way a lot of stuff happens.
We’re currently in one of our periodic tantrums about how special interests have highjacked democracy. So business as usual in Washington and state capitals has had to pretend to play along with the rhetoric, widening the already significant gap between what political leaders say and what they do. The disconnect is so obvious now that even journalists, who take a certain amount of hypocrisy for granted, can’t resist exposing its current excesses. Hence the recent Newsweek story on how conservative political leaders who’ve sworn allegiance to Tea Party purity when it comes to getting government out of the lives of citizens are working government agencies for every dime they can get on behalf of their districts.
This is an ancient art. Thanks to the work of their Congressional delegations, most states get more back from the feds more than their citizens pay in federal taxes. For a look at how the numbers trend over 20 years, check out this story and chart in an August, 2011 issue of the Economist.
Because the Sustainable Communities Initiative is only two years old, it may not have built sufficient support among all the private and public sector interests it needs to twist the right arms. But you can be sure that some of what would have been funded under those grants will be funded through other means. Ironically, the solutions will come as a result of the kind of collaboration prevented in the regions by the budget cuts. It will be a collaboration of Congressional staffers, lobbyists, and powerful public and private players.
The losers in that meeting of the minds will be those with the least political and economic clout. So it will be up to local leaders to build back into programs the opportunities lost in the federal budget cuts. That will require a stomach for hypocrisy. Those who have built relationships of trust and support, including relationships with politicians compelled to wave a fist at Washington with one hand while they reach out for cash with the other, will get their shots at shaping better futures for their regions.