No good policy goes unpunished
Over the past several months, American politics has become more partisan than ever. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in a power struggle with the president, seems dead set against letting the federal government help local governments pursue anything smacking of smart growth.
In a September webinar sponsored by Smart Growth America, Beth Osborne, deputy assistant secretary for the US Department of Transportation (DOT), made an observation that indicates just how destructive the House has become when it comes to setting national priorities.
Osborne reported that a bill recently approved by the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development contains language “saying that the three of us [DOT, HUD, and EPA] should not be able to talk about sustainability and livability.”
The bill, which is intended to guide funding for the 2012 fiscal year, stipulates, according to Osborne: “No funds may be used for the proposed Sustainable Communities Initiative.” The prohibition includes, but is not limited to, “personnel, research, grant management, policy development, capacity-building of grantees and potential applicants, and interagency coordination.”
What’s with the House? Are representatives actually opposed to making American communities more livable and making our treatment of the environment more sustainable? The mean-spirited subcommittee action is only the latest in Congressional attempts to curtail some of the Obama administration’s best domestic initiatives.
I don’t mean to suggest that everything the administration has done is wonderful. The president’s passenger rail initiative stretched the term “high-speed” beyond its generally accepted meaning, and it included some questionable recommendations — most notably, the construction of a fast train line between Orlando and Tampa, two cities where there’s not enough of a transit system to connect to.
Nonetheless, President Obama has surely been right about the need to strengthen America’s passenger rail network. And in the combined realm of transportation, housing, and urban development, the Obama administration has brought needed reform. Two articles in the current issue — on Choice Neighborhoods and the revival of a West Virginia town highlight the valuable work now being accomplished.
Both Choice Neighborhoods and the DOT/HUD/EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities are expressions of a newly integrative way of thinking. It had been obvious for years that the housing problems of distressed neighborhoods cannot be solved without changes in other aspects of those ill-performing neighborhoods. Education, employment, mental health, public safety — these and other elements of the community must be in decent shape if housing and development interventions are to have much chance of success. Please take a look at our report on the Choice Neighborhoods efforts in Boston, New Orleans, Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco, and see what you think. My sense is that the Obama administration is on the right track — solidifying communities through a series of improvements that reinforce one another.
The Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which is active in Ranson, West Virginia, represents a long-needed reversal of the tendency of departments and agencies to make their decisions in isolation. The Partnership, formed in June 2009, is looking at transportation, housing, urban development, and the environment in a holistic way.
At this still-early stage in the collaborative approach, what’s needed is a more thoughtful response from Congress. The programs that have been launched in urban development will require years to achieve full results. This is not the time for tantrums against government spending of every sort or for ordering the executive to stop talking about sustainability and livability.
On the contrary, Congress should recognize that President Obama has injected a considerable dose of wisdom into the government’s community-building efforts. House Republicans should rise to the occasion — offering criticism where it’s useful but providing support for programs that are well-conceived. That is how the US will make progress. It won’t be accomplished by knee-jerk opposition.