Over the course of the past decade, American cities and metropolitan areas have firmly established themselves as the engines of the nation’s economy and as the centers of technological innovation and global trade and investment. Donald Trump’s election and Republicans’ continued control of the House and Senate put cities in uncharted territory.
Our country is facing a convergence of massive economic, demographic and environmental challenges. They will not be overcome without massive new investments in innovation, infrastructure and inclusion. This multitrillion-dollar “investment gap” should be at the forefront of policymakers’ minds on both sides of the aisle.
It is conceivable that the Trump administration will push for greater federal investments in infrastructure and defense spending. But for the most part, the Trump era looks as if it will usher in a toxic mix of tax cuts, reductions in several types of entitlement spending and policy shifts — like reducing our commitment to mitigating climate change — damaging to our long-term national interests. If this is the case, responsibility will fall to local and metropolitan actors like never before.
Our cities and metropolitan areas must be vigilant in articulating the ways that changes to federal policy will affect their communities.
They can begin by insisting that the federal government lead where it must.
Many of the disruptive forces affecting communities across the nation — global trade, wage stagnation, technological change, environmental tumult and international migration — transcend parochial borders and require thoughtful policymaking at the federal level. The Trump administration must see its core job as acting with vision, direction and purpose on the things that cities and metropolitan areas cannot do on their own. This includes promoting American interests overseas, investing in research and development, devising and enforcing sensible immigration policy, providing a robust safety net, and addressing climate change.
Many of the president-elect’s campaign positions on these issues are deeply troubling. Repealing the Affordable Care Act would take away healthcare from millions of Americans and shift responsibility for emergency care back to local governments, likely swamping local budgets that are already under enormous stress. Reversals of climate policy could remove valuable incentives for investments in renewable energy. Shifts in immigration policy could divide communities, remove badly needed workers from local businesses and distract local leaders from the many more pressing issues at hand.
Cities and metropolitan areas need to describe — with evidence, granularity and vigor — the implications of changes to these policies. Then they need to engage in the legislative debate with a unified voice, raising practical and widespread concerns that cross the artificial boundaries of cities, counties, suburban municipalities and rural towns.
Second, cities and metropolitan areas need to demand that the federal government empower where it should.
Given the extent to which cities have improved their performance over the past decade or so, Trump has a unique opportunity to reform Washington’s relationship with metropolitan areas. He should consider providing them with greater flexibility to adapt federal discretionary investments in transportation, housing, workforce development, education, and other areas to their specific needs and local priorities. The resources the federal government provides to local areas are heavily prescriptive and compartmentalized, reaching their intended communities through stovepiped funding mechanisms that often roll out incoherently. Our metropolitan areas should call for greater flexibility in exchange for greater accountability.
Any change in the provision of federal resources should be based on the principle of making federal investments more effective — not reducing their size. With the same total quantity of resources but more flexibility in how resources are spent, locally designed approaches have the potential to be more effective than federally administered ones.
Trump should consider proposing “Community Deals,” a process inspired by the “City Deals” and devolution agreement process underway in the United Kingdom. With Congressional approval, this would provide the opportunity for metropolitan areas to “apply” for the ability to allocate federal discretionary resources to drive a specific social, economic or environmental outcome. This contrasts with the current system, where cities are forced to braid together many small federal grants with rigid determinations into a coherent local strategy. One city or metropolis, for example, might argue for aggregating funding from disparate programs to boost youth employment or educational achievement; another might integrate housing and social service funding in a concerted effort to end homelessness.
Community Deals could better align federal resources with local priorities, fully unleash the problem-solving creativity of local actors, and correct the notion that the dizzying array of small federal grant programs provided to local governments can match the drastically varying needs and conditions on the ground. It could also provide a vehicle for greater cross-party collaboration by incentivizing negotiation between local coalitions (often led by Democrats) and the Trump administration.
Finally, cities and metropolitan areas should demand that the federal government help leverage private and civic capital to the maximum extent possible. The scale of investment that our nation needs cannot be provided exclusively by the public sector.
Trump has, to date, recognized this new reality inconsistently. His still-evolving infrastructure agenda seeks to provide incentives to private investors to engage. But his tax proposals follow a more traditional Republican penchant for general cuts rather than ones designed to achieve specific leverage.
Cities and metropolitan areas should insist that Congress allow tax incentive programs to match local preferences and market conditions, like catalyzing funding toward mass transit projects instead of highway construction. They should call for expansions to economy-boosting incentive programs like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and the New Markets Tax Credit, and be prepared to defend tax expenditures like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which are critical components of our nation’s safety net. Local areas could also push for new incentive programs that would offer tax breaks for investments in qualified companies that seek to grow jobs in distressed areas.
As Donald Trump and the Republicans assume control of the executive and legislative branches of government, we must remember that our federalist system is an exercise in shared power. State and local actors have long played a much more important role than the federal government in many of the matters most essential to the success of our nation — promoting the vitality of our businesses, the education of our children, the quality of our infrastructure, the skills of our workers and the vibrancy of our public spaces. Over the next several years, the hard business of investing in our future and uniting the nation will not occur in Washington, but in our metropolitan areas, where leaders and residents in our cities, suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas will work together to find common ground and purpose. It remains to be seen if Republicans will choose to strengthen or stymie this dynamic.
Bruce is the inaugural centennial scholar at the Brookings Institution and the co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution. He regularly advises on policy reforms that advance the competitiveness of metropolitan areas. Katz is a member of the Next City Board of Directors, a graduate of Brown University and Yale Law School and a visiting professor at the London School of Economics.