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Why Washington Drives Mayors Crazy

Alexandria, Va., Mayor Bill Euille (third from left); Gary, Ind., Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson (fifth from left); and other mayors walk toward the White House Thursday for a reception with President Obama and Vice President Biden.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Alexandria, Va., Mayor Bill Euille (third from left); Gary, Ind., Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson (fifth from left); and other mayors walk toward the White House Thursday for a reception with President Obama and Vice President Biden.

Along with hundreds of other cities across the country, Dubuque, Iowa, has been able to cut back on its utility bills, thanks to energy efficiency grants from the federal government.

But that money was part of the 2009 stimulus package. It's all dried up, and no more is forthcoming.

"We can't seem to get any traction in Congress to get it reinstated," says Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol.

Energy efficiency money isn't the only area where mayors have been frustrated in their dealings with Washington.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors has been meeting at a hotel a couple of blocks from the White House this week. Those attending say they're getting a lot more value out of interacting with their peers than trying to persuade Congress to do anything.

"What I find most useful is just the chance to sit down with other mayors to see what they're doing right now and just trading stories about what's working and what's not working," says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. "It's a very pragmatic approach to things, and that's the difference — it's not particularly ideological."

Lots of his peers feel the same way. With Congress practically paralyzed, mayors — like any other group looking for action — end up frustrated, whether the issue is education or public safety.

"While Washington bickers, the world is passing them by," says Joy Cooper, the mayor of Hallandale Beach, Fla. "We have to produce on a day-to-day basis."

Things could be worse. Mayors are able to get more out of Washington than interest groups working in stymied policy areas, such as agriculture or immigration. They have an ongoing fiscal relationship with the federal government that will continue as long as there are programs that are paid for by federal dollars.

In fact, the $1.1 trillion appropriations package enacted earlier this month restored funding for a number of local programs, such as transit and water grants and housing vouchers.

The mayors were treated like visiting royalty by the Obama administration, which dispatched several Cabinet secretaries to meet with them both publicly and in private.

Since the earliest days of Barack Obama's presidency, mayors — who are predominantly Democratic — have enjoyed easy access to the executive branch, with Obama creating a White House Office of Urban Affairs.

But while that office has been a helpful liaison, it hasn't been able to help mayors push their priorities through Congress.

Local governments have lobbied for years to force Internet retailers to collect sales taxes, for instance, to level the playing field with brick-and-mortar stores and replenish treasuries at city hall. Such a bill passed the Senate last year, but has yet to find momentum in the House.

Such frustration is common, says St. Paul, Minn., Mayor Chris Coleman. Mayors now have an extreme case of the ambivalence that many voters experience — they hate Congress, but love their individual members of Congress.

While mayors mostly find their local delegations sympathetic — and sometimes even vigorous advocates — Congress as a whole, they complain, leaves them wanting. Federal largesse toward cities is not what it was pre-recession, and changes in policy that could be helpful in any number of areas have stalled out.

The result, Coleman says, is that "a lot of us are talking about strategies we can implement on our own, without depending on the federal government."

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