Last week the National League of Cities hosted a conference in Washington, D.C. where a couple thousand mayors and other municipal leaders from around the nation met to address various challenges facing their home towns in 2018. You can debate the usefulness of such confabs all you like, but the concept of shared experiences and an opportunity to develop solutions among local leaders surely has some value. Getting a bit carried away with the concept, however, was Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt. So impressed was he with some of the ideas which came out of the meeting that he took to Twitter to advertise his latest editorial… Why aren’t these people running the country?
Why aren’t these people running the country? I talked with some politicians this week–yes, politicians–who spoke a lot of common sense. https://t.co/xMFwJaf90p
— Fred Hiatt (@hiattf) March 17, 2018
Hiatt begins by complaining about trade wars, tax cuts and an infrastructure plan which doesn’t have a clear mechanism in place to pay for it. (And just as a side note, he makes a very good point on that score. We didn’t pay for the tax cuts either.) From there, Fred goes on to provide some examples of the valuable experiences and good questions brought by some of the conference attendees.
Karen Freeman-Wilson (D), the mayor of Gary, Ind. — a.k.a. a public official who actually accomplishes useful things — had recently spent a day with a pothole-repair crew in her city of 80,000. She said the potholes were so prevalent, “you had to ask, why are we even doing this? We need to be paving this street. Well, where’s that money going to come from? And these are main roads! And then the side streets. . . . And then someone comes into my office and says, ‘When are you going to repave my alley?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
Not long before, Mark Stodola, the Democratic mayor of Little Rock and this year’s president of the National League of Cities, took part in a program to award modest road-building grants to small towns around the state.
“It was shocking the desperation you saw in these applications,” Stodola said. Officials worried about school buses getting through in winter, farmers getting their product to market, first responders getting to families in emergencies.
Stodola said more than 1,300 council members were in town to remind Congress about rusting pipes in Flint, Mich., rising tides in Houston, aging infrastructure everywhere.
Obviously, there’s no real mystery in how Hiatt just so happens to quote a number of mayors and other municipal officials who all, purely by coincidence, happened to be Democrats. These were the ones willing to bash conservative principles and the GOP in general when they weren’t going after President Trump specifically. But both the conference and Hiatt’s column do offer us the opportunity to answer his question and reflect on some of the foundational principles of good government.
To get the $64,000 question out of the way up front, why aren’t these people running the country? To borrow a phrase from those pleasant ladies from the E-surance commercial, that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works. But you already knew that. Still, at the same time, these actually are the people who run the country in a very important way (though they don’t get to run nearly enough of it). All of this comes down to a well-worn conservative principle which most of the speakers Hiatt highlighted are likely loathe to admit:
The best place to bestow governmental power is that the level closest to the people.
This is true for a number of reasons, not least of which is that accountability is much easier to manage at the municipal level. If a nationally elected figure begins causing trouble you’ve got to herd a vast, diverse group of cats to build any sort of consensus in terms of holding them responsible. By contrast, if someone shows up at a city council meeting with a video of one of the council members stealing money from the parking meters you can give them the boot pretty quickly.
More importantly, they are dealing with problems which are frequently unique to their locale. Some of the mayors have rusty pipes. Others don’t, and not all of the pipes around the nation are rusting for the same reasons. Northern mayors have a lot more problems with potholes than their southern counterparts. Did you know that the requirements for laying blacktop in Alabama are vastly different than how you need to do it in Minnesota? So each of them has challenges to deal with and experiences and solutions they can share. But not all of the solutions will work everywhere. That’s why local government is so crucial and good local leaders are a treasure.
The elected creatures who inhabit the Beltway are a different breed. They are only rarely able to loyally represent the specific interests of the folks back home. They’re too busy worrying about sticking with the party’s ideological vision for the country. They have to raise money for their next election. They need to make sure they don’t incur the wrath of the ideological extremes in the party base. Frankly, it’s a miracle when they get anything productive done at all.
And do you know what would happen if you took all those mayors and municipal legislators and sent them to Washington to run the entire country? They’d turn into exactly the same sort of creatures and all those wonderful ideas and that boundless energy would disappear. Because that’s just how Washington works. You want to solve a problem for the nation, Fred? Try tackling that one because I don’t have a clue what to do about it.