Why aren’t these people running the country?
This past week, hundreds of mayors and other local officials came to Washington to try to get some action out of Congress and the administration, and many of them were asking common-sensical questions.
Why would you start a trade war when so many people already are struggling to earn a living?
Why would you cut taxes when we are desperate to fix potholes, replace rusting water pipes and modernize our ports?
What country are you living in?
Well, the mayors were probably too polite to ask that last one. But judging by the disconnect between the challenges they deal with every day and the useless rhetoric they were offered here, it must have been on their minds.
Worse than useless, actually. It happened that while they were in town, five Cabinet secretaries went to Congress to tout their shiny new infrastructure plan — with absolutely no proposal to pay for it. Meanwhile, Congress, having slashed taxes primarily on behalf of corporations and rich people (and along the way making it more difficult for cities to float bonds for construction projects), began discussing yet another tax break — primarily, yes, for rich people.
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.
“As local officials, we’re burdened by this every single day,” he said. “I guess Congress can just sit there and wait for the next disaster to happen, and the next.”
President Trump, who hasn’t had the courage to propose a funding source for the federal component of his infrastructure plan, says he wants most of the money to come from local and private sources.
These officials said they’re not opposed to it either. But many of them already have raised taxes, while some of them are preempted by state governments from doing more. And although private-public partnerships make sense in some cases, many small or rural governments have no assets of interest to the private sector. For bigger governments, selling off a prized airport or road might bring a quick reward but leaves future generations worse off.
Which, come to think of it, may be why it jibes so nicely with the governing philosophy of this administration and this Congress.
I asked Freeman-Wilson whether she isn’t at least grateful for Trump’s steel tariffs, since Gary is home to U.S. Steel’s largest manufacturing plant. But the mayor said Gary is also home to factories that use steel and will be harmed by the tariffs. “You may win on one hand but lose in the long run,” she said. “We’re not that myopic.”
Stodola, who said Little Rock houses a manufacturer of oil and gas pipelines as well as other firms that will be hurt, agreed. So did Joe Buscaino, a Democratic council member from Los Angeles, who said the ports there and in Long Beach could take a big hit from a trade war with South Korea and other Pacific nations.
The nonideological common sense these officials brought to Washington served as a bracing reminder. Of course the GOP-controlled Congress faces a lot of difficult issues, but it can’t even bring itself to approve modest solutions a majority of Americans would overwhelmingly support: a small gasoline or carbon tax to pay for infrastructure repair; reasonable background checks for gun purchases; letting “dreamers” come out of the shadows.
Given what Stodola described as voter frustration with crumbling roads, I asked him why Congress is so disconnected from people on that issue.
He answered my question with a question: “Why are they disconnected on just about everything?”