Mayors from across the nation have a message for Congress: Gridlock means mayors have had to pick up the slack.
Nearly 300 mayors from across the country, and from both parties, descended on the District of Columbia following President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address for the 83rd annual U.S. Conference of Mayors' winter meeting. Up for discussion in particular were new ways federal and local governments can get things done. “Cities have to work,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who addressed the conference, told CQ Roll Call. “Congress can waste time, and sadly we do, but cities have to get up and turn the lights on, put police on the street, make sure the fire engines are running.”
For the mayors, congressional gridlock means they also have to address issues that extend beyond basic city functions.
"As a nation, we face major challenges, and Washington has simply not stepped up to the challenge of solving them," said USCM President and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson in his “state of the cities” address.
“So, they’ve landed firmly at the doorstep of our nation’s mayors,” Johnson said. “That means that being a mayor is no longer just about making sure the trash is picked up and the buses are running on time. Today, we are the ones grappling with these very real, big picture challenges.”
Johnson proposed a “new federalist compact,” in which the federal government focuses on areas it is uniquely positioned to address, allows localities leeway to deal with the rest, and invests in urban areas.
Throughout the three-day meeting in D.C., mayors discussed areas of common ground and listened to speeches from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., cabinet secretaries, private sector leaders and members of Congress.
But there are some areas where mayors are looking at ways to work around Congress. During a Friday conference call from the White House, Democratic Mayor Madeline Rogero of Knoxville, Tenn., said she and other officials in the president’s task force on climate action have developed ways to circumvent Congress.
“We were able to come up with a series of recommendations that can be implemented without actions of Congress,” Rogero said. “That’s one of the things that we’re going to do, because we’re about getting things done at the local level.”
However, there are other areas where mayors will have to work with Congress, and can push federal lawmakers to act.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said in a Thursday speech that mayors have moved the needle in Congress, pointing to the passage of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act in May.
“We were successful in part because of the efforts that the mayors put forth and helped us to educate legislators across the country, members of Congress,” Shuster said. “And we’ll continue to need your help as we move forward.”
Infrastructure is the major issue where mayors believe they can work with Congress to improve cities.
“One area that cries out for help in each and every one of our cities are our streets, our bridges, even things as boring as sidewalks, and the breakdown in infrastructure we cannot predict,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat, said at a Wednesday news conference. “The economy’s recovered, but some of our basic ways to get around still need to be addressed.”
Shuster told the mayors he was optimistic Congress could develop a long-term transportation bill the president would sign.
“We’re looking for places that we can work together with the president, and I think one of those places is in transportation and infrastructure in this country,” Shuster said. He later added, “I feel confident though that we’re going to figure out that funding stream so we can do a longer term bill.”
Though uncertainty has recently surrounded infrastructure funding, some mayors are optimistic the GOP Congress can move past the gridlock.
“The Republicans are in charge of both houses of Congress right now,” Democratic Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul, Minn., said Friday. “As we head into 2016, they’re under a lot of pressure to get things done.”
But, in the meantime, mayors are moving past congressional inaction to keep their cities functioning.
“The gridlock in Congress does not reflect how we operate in our cities,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Wednesday. “Across this nation, under the leadership of mayors in this room, we get things done.”
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