Conjectures From the Swamp

D.C. may be an object of Republican disdain, but it’s now at the center of governmental change.
January 2017
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Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

Here in the Washington Swamp, January will be a month like no other in recent history. The day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, with its assorted swamp-draining promises, we will play host to the Million Women March for female empowerment. Six days later comes the anti-abortion March for Life. All three events are expected to attract, at the least, hundreds of thousands of people. The swamp isn’t draining; it’s boiling over.

In its post-election coverage, the Washington-obsessed media generally neglected to point out how deeply the Republican victory penetrated. While Trump trailed Hillary Clinton nationally by more than 2 million popular votes, the opposite dynamic was playing out at the state level, where Republicans will control 33 of the 50 governorships. The GOP will hold 56 percent of all state legislative seats, nearly 1,000 more than when the Obama administration took office. The GOP victory may have been slender at the top, but it was broad at the base.

However scornful the Republicans may be of the federal government, the route to many of the public policy changes that they favor still runs through Washington. What does all this mean for politics and policy at the state and local level? Issue by issue, here are some thoughts:

On overhauling the nation’s infrastructure, there has been superficial agreement between the national parties that it’s a priority, especially now that interest rates are at historic lows. And the election provided evidence of strong popular support as voters in both red and blue states approved tax increases and other measures to support $170 billion in a wide array of road and transit projects. Clearly the states and localities are ready, but Congress will have to decide either to accept the Trump scheme -- which critics call a crony capitalist, mass privatization plan relying on huge tax benefits to utilities and construction companies -- or a simpler borrow-and-build approach, financed largely with public dollars. The will is there, but the way is unclear.

On health care, the dominant issue will be the Affordable Care Act, the signature achievement of the Obama administration, and one for which the Democrats have paid dearly in subsequent elections. Some 20 million people now have insurance through expanded Medicaid plans in 31 states. But top GOP officials in Washington have made obliterating it a priority, even though Trump himself appears to be waffling. Republicans will have to forge a compromise of their own before taking a revised plan to the states.

We are almost certain to see a swing from Obama’s unilateral administrative policy of protecting and absorbing some undocumented immigrants, most of them young, to a Trump initiative to round up and deport as many as 3 million of them. The administration’s relations with many states and particularly cities are likely to be tense. The police chief of Los Angeles, home to the largest concentration of undocumented residents in the nation, recently said his department will not cooperate with a more aggressive federal deportation effort. The mayors of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., have said much the same thing. There may be attempts to cut off federal funding to those sanctuary cities that fail to go along with the Trump policy.

Finally, no issue stirs as much concern as climate change, in part because an international structure has been designed and approved by some 170 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels well below those of 11 years ago. Meanwhile, average temperatures both in the U.S. and worldwide continue to set records and sea levels keep rising, especially in our East Coast cities. Trump and top Republican congressional leaders are united in their denial of manmade climate change, so there is no reason to expect anything but federal withdrawal from last year’s Paris Agreement, except perhaps lawsuits from some Democratic states demanding that the federal government curb greenhouse gas emissions.

If there is any positive news, it’s that states and localities can take action on their own, and since such a substantial portion of carbon emissions comes from urban areas, local government can make a difference. The final paradox is that China, the world’s largest polluter, has become a leading advocate of emissions control and now is critical of Trump’s denial.

To view Trumpism through a truly global lens, you have to look at what’s happening outside our borders. My wife and I traveled to Scotland and Ireland last summer, a month after British voters narrowly passed Brexit -- the referendum to pull the country out of the European Union. The enormity of the decision was still being absorbed; second thoughts were abundant. But we were struck by the similarities that we were to see in our own country -- a concern about the fast pace of globalization, ethnic mixing and the lingering effects of the Great Recession that decimated European economies, as well as ours.

For now, it’s back to the Swamp.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com