Metropolitans in the Middle

Some great back and forth about U.S. federalism has been banging around the web lately, with Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein wondering whether America actually needs states and Josh Patashnik over at The Plank defending them.

Yglesias is particularly good here when he notices that the effectiveness of American federalism suffers because while states remain predominant “we don’t really live our lives `at the state level,’” and yet “we don’t have any level of governance that addresses metro area issues.” That’s exactly right, to which I would only add that the centrality of metros to economic life makes this disconnect even more dire. So one can share Matt’s frustration when he says that “there’s not a ton that can be done about this.”

And yet, there is actually quite a bit that a smart, refocused nation can and must do to remedy the absence of middle-tier (metro or regional) government from our federalism.

To begin with, Washington (and states, for that matter) needs to recognize, deal with, and bolster the array of metropolitan actors that already exists. Yglesias is right that the Constitution doesn’t account for metros, so that there is–constitutionally–no “there there” between the localism of individual municipalities and the larger states. Yet that doesn’t mean that nothing’s happening at that level.

For example, the nation possesses 380 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that are already empowered–notwithstanding their variable quality–to engage in long-range transportation planning. Therefore, wouldn’t one way to thrust U.S. metros farther into federalism mix be to expand the MPOs’ role and responsibilities to mandate, say, planning and program alignment across a broader array of federal and state programs? Likewise, hundreds of other increasingly robust “metro” regional councils and other entities are also active, ranging from scores of  councils of government (COGs) and myriad economic development districts (EDDs) to the metro mayors’ caucuses in Chicago and Denver; the older suburbs coalitions in Kansas City and Cleveland and Milwaukee; and the scores of other regional economic, civic, philanthropic, or environmental initiatives now working on regional problems. Shouldn’t these too be sought out, utilized more by Washington and the states, and empowered? Sure they should: Washington and the states should each seek out and work with the existing retinue of metropolitan actors as core partners in investment and program delivery.

In addition, Washington and the states should go farther and seek to stimulate the emergence of new metropolitan alignments. Perhaps the best way to do this is to stimulate multi-jurisdictional regional collaboration, say through federal grant competitions that reward such activity. That will inevitably coalesce new middle-tier governance entities. So why not apply—as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does in the Notification of Funding Availability for its Neighborhood Stabilization Program—clear preferences for collaborative efforts? For that matter, why shouldn’t Washington apply a modest preference for multi-jurisdictional collaboration to essentially all of its activities, including dozens of the nation’s scores of categorical, block, and other grant flows? Such a “regionalism steer” would evoke much more metropolitan or quasi-metropolitan governance activity in U.S. regions. Such modest but clear pay-offs for cross-boundary cooperation would go surprisingly far toward producing more active “middle-tier” governance in America.

Yet that’s just one bundle of needed changes. Short of scrapping states or a constitutional convention on middle-tier governance, there’s plenty the nation could do to better align U.S. federalism with the nation’s metro-centric economic reality.   Relationships between the federal government, states, and localities need to be re-imagined to more fully realize the potential of metropolitan America. Metropolitan actors need more discretion and standing. Federal and state policies and programs need to be put at the service of metropolitan needs and priorities. Obvious intrusions into regional sovereignty need to be minimized.

To achieve this, the nation will need to grope toward one more iteration of the “federalism bargain”–the nation’s continuously renegotiated squaring of centralization and localism. Powers and responsibilities constantly shift between different levels of government–including localities–in response to the social, economic, environmental, and political imperatives of different eras. Over time, a decentralized nation centralized, prompted by wars and the Great Depression; then, beginning in the 1970s, new conditions brought a new drift toward devolution and state creativity. Now, it is time–not least because of the current economic crisis–to readjust U.S. federalism and governance once more.