If we have learned anything from the 111th Congress, and their fascination with obscure rules of the house — blanket holds, the nuclear option — is that Congress is perhaps better equipped to provide a distracting media narrative to frustrate an already frustrated electorate than to actually create new, meaningful policy. While politics has replaced policy in Congress, Obama’s agencies are actually getting to work on the issues. The Department of Education has launched the Promise Neighborhoods program; The US DOT has expressed interest in a multi-modal approach to transportation planning; and the EPA, HUD and the DOT have created the Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities, to create a more integrated approach to affordable housing, transportation, and environmental protection.
The Interagency Partnership is a great start for the federal government, but it is limited in funding, and could be gone by 2012, should Obama not get reelected. The goals of the Interagency Partnership are similar to the goals of Senator Christopher Dodd’s Livable Communities Act, which he introduced to the Senate in August of 2009, perhaps thinking the debate on health care was coming to a close. The bill would make a more permanent Interagency Council on Sustainable Communities, and it would provide $4 billion in competitive grant funding for planning and implementation grants for Smart Growth projects.
And, only ten months after being introduced to the Senate, the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, of which Dodd is the Chairman, is finally discussing the bill. There was a similar bill introduced in the House earlier this year, in February, so should the bill get out of committee in one piece, it actually might get voted on, or at least appended to a larger bill as a rider. But, as the sad-sack bill in Schoolhouse Rock told us, “it’s a long, long wait while I’m sitting in committee.”
This committee hearing could prove interesting, as Dodd is both the chairman of the committee, and the sponsor of the bill. The ranking Republican on the committee is none other than Richard Shelby of Alabama, a principled man who switched parties in 1994, when the Republicans took the majority of Congress, and who put a blanket hold on Obama’s nominations earlier this year until he got a couple of pet projects earmarked for his home state.
The two have been locked in months of contentious debate over the details of Dodd’s financial reform bill. What is most fascinating about their debate is that both men are just a bit too close to the industry that they are working on regulating. The AP reports that Dodd’s wife, Jackie Clegg, serves on the board of CME Group Inc., which is the world’s largest futures and options exchange. CME Group has spent about $3 million since the beginning of last year lobbying against certain aspects of financial reform. Shelby, meanwhile, is the president of a title company in Alabama, worth a few million. Title companies will face new regulations should financial reform pass in its current state, which Senator Shelby does not want it to.
Putting aside the fact that both Shelby and Dodd get the majority of their campaign contributions from the financial services and insurance industries, let’s pause and consider what it means for our democracy that these are the men who we trust with “marking up” the financial reform bill before it comes to the Senate floor, when both stand to personally lose money should they do what needs to be done.
And it is this very same committee that the Livable Communities Act will have to get through, so it’s worth mentioning that this isn’t the least dysfunctional committee on the Hill.
This being an environmental and social equity issue, we can be sure that people on the right will be able to paint it as anti-business, and perhaps aggressively Marxist. Take, for example this bit from the Picayune, Mississippi’s newspaper, the Picayune Item. About a month ago, Picayune held a public hearing on a new Smart Growth plan for the area, probably not dissimilar to projects that would get funding through the LCA, and heard nothing but negative comments from the audience. Let’s hear what Larry Waggoner of Henleyfield had to say, on public record:
“I am actively against this so-called ‘Smart Growth’ plan, which is more accurately called a government take-over plan. This is an attempt to seize control of private property by government to grant the control of that property to other bodies and other individuals…No thank you. This is not a communist nation and we will fight you on these principles. Anyone who has not read this document should. It is straight out of the socialist and communist manifesto. This is unbelievable and I wish our supervisors would have had the guts to be here tonight. If they have a lick of sense, they will back up and say this is a bad idea from start to finish. The only issue is what do the residents of Pearl River Co. want?”
Given the how easy it is for Republicans to gain political capital by parroting the diatribes of their most fringe element, it might not be entirely surprising to hear this sort of rhetoric, should there actually be any public debate over the bill. We have seen this dynamic happen with both health care reform and now the financial reform bill.
But, unlike the two large reform bills before it, the LCA doesn’t have any single, massive industry to oppose it. Nor does it have a team of legislators whose votes have been more or less purchased by the industries in question. The only Senators on the Banking Committee with potential conflicts of interest are Republicans David Vitter of Louisiana and Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas, both of whom take lots of campaign donations from oil companies. If you’re the type who buys into the GM Conspiracy, then perhaps it wouldn’t be such a stretch to imagine that the oil industry would not want to see the federal government to endorse smarter planning efforts. But then again, if I were a senator from a Gulf state who took lots of money from oil companies to get into office, I’d probably distance myself right now, for one ever-expanding reason.
So no, the Livable Communities Act’s odds of getting through committee and onto the floor — or onto another bill as an amendment — are not as easy to handicap as the other big-ticket bills Congress has been debating lately, but that’s probably a good thing. After all, how frequently is urban planning even discussed on the Hill?
There is hope in that alone, and perhaps we in the urban planning field could take a cue from the Schoolhouse Rock bill. Though his life is in the hands of arguing legislators, the bill feels fortunate. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” says the bill, slumped up against the closed door of the committee session “most bills never even get this far.”