Finance

Squeezing The Federal Turnip

This isn't the easiest time for localities to get money out of Washington. But they aren't about to quit asking.
by | March 2003
 

Alan Autry, the mayor of Fresno, California, steps out of his Washington hotel into a bright, cold winter morning. "It's a great day to beg," he declares.

Today he will be begging at high levels, pleading with his state's congressional delegation for money. Autry takes this part of his job seriously, both in D.C. and in Sacramento. He's hired a lobbyist to work the California legislature for Fresno, after the city went a decade without one, and he's rejoined the U.S. Conference of Mayors after an even longer absence. In Washington, he's retained the services of Leonard Simon, one of the many lobbyists who specialize in guiding local governments through the federal policy thicket.

Autry understands that cities come to Washington for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks--because that's where the money is. Fresno, a fast-growth city that's now up to almost half a million people, is burdened by a long list of problems, including a 15 percent unemployment rate, air quality that's among the worst in the nation and enough crime to justify spending three-quarters of the city's general fund on public safety. That anti-crime concentration doesn't leave Autry much money to fund economic development efforts, or any other policy innovations, for that matter. In his quest for new revenues, Autry is hoping that Washington will help.

As it happens, the federal government is not in a particularly generous mood toward cities or counties just at the moment, with war and tax cuts dominating its agenda. Local officials complain that Washington is involving itself intrusively in issues such as public safety, education and election procedure, normally the province of state or local government. Moreover, the feds are mandating costly changes without offering sufficient help to enable the localities to pay for them. Autry and his counterparts around the country worry that further changes in federal health and welfare programs might lay more responsibility at their feet.

It appears that the agenda of cities and counties is more at odds with that of the federal government than it has been for a long time. "You get the feeling sometimes that the feds are just not on the same map as state and local governments," says Lynn Cutler, who worked in the White House intergovernmental affairs office during the Clinton administration and now lobbies for the city of Cleveland. "And--hello- -I thought they all represented the same people."

But if states and localities are finding the feds unresponsive to the larger items on their agendas, earmarked funding for local programs remains a growth industry in Congress, with members eager to support projects that can earn political credit for all involved. If only the strongest dogs are going to get scraps in the present budget environment, it may be more important than ever for local governments to hire their own lobbyists if they want to stay in the hunt.

Fresno has been averaging more than $3 million a year in earmarked appropriations, which is pretty good, and as Autry makes his rounds on Capitol Hill, he takes pains to sound grateful. He thanks the city's three U.S. representatives--Fresno is split into three districts--for their help in securing money for transit and an industrial park. Autry is thrilled when Senator Barbara Boxer looks him in the eye and pledges her support for a half-million dollar study that may lead eventually to a major mass transit system in the San Joaquin Valley. "When you sit face to face to get a commitment, that's huge," he says.

Fresno's mayor has some advantages in working Capitol Hill that other mayors do not possess. When he walks down the hall with a congressman, Autry is the one guards and tourists recognize. Not many recall that he was a backup quarterback with the Green Bay Packers, but nearly everyone seems to remember his role as Lieutenant Bubba Skinner in the TV series, "In the Heat of the Night." While dining at his Washington hotel, in fact, Autry is recognized by the ambassador from Uganda, who says after the ice is broken that he'd like to come study the cotton fields outside of Fresno.

DOUBLE TEAMING

While the mayor shakes hands, poses for pictures and compares notes on football games, Simon stays in the background, checking appointments on his portable Web device. ("I have a deep passion for anonymity," he says.) But Autry plays up the veteran lobbyist's connections in an effort to score points himself with members of the delegation. He tells Devin Nunes, Fresno's 29-year-old freshman congressman, that Simon (who spent a decade lobbying for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and has been in private practice 15 years) will be available to help explain the players and the process on Capitol Hill. Over lunch, Simon points out some of his new congressional colleagues to Nunes and advises him to play pickup basketball in the House gym as a way of making contacts.

However helpful a service this may be, the fact remains that Autry, not Simon, is the city's most effective lobbyist. So why does Fresno need to pay Simon $24,000 a year to advance its interests? The answer is fairly simple: The money buys persistence. Autry will fly home the next day, but Simon will be walking the corridors over and over again, reiterating the same points to the same members, staff and executive branch bureaucrats. It is an article of faith on Capitol Hill that members of Congress respond to repetition--they believe that if a city keeps asking about a project, it must really want it. The more visits, phone calls and e-mails from Simon that are logged into a congressional office computer, the better Fresno's chances of seeing its projects through to completion. "I make a good pitch, then I go back and run a city," Autry says. "Any endeavor's going to take a sustained effort to push things through."

Or so everyone believes. "If you leave it just to the members and the senators," says Cutler, "they've got a whole lot of folks they have to take care of, and they're picking among their children in a way,"

Only the largest cities--Chicago, New York, Los Angeles--have their own Washington lobbyists on staff, but hundreds of cities, counties and transit authorities contract out such services. Most of them rely on small-shop lobbyists such as Simon, Carolyn Chaney (who, like Simon, represents several cities in the West) and Virginia Mayer (who works for Boston), or big law firms with municipal practices, such as Patton Boggs or Holland & Knight (where Cutler works). It's impossible to guarantee results, however, and some mayors question whether the expense is worth it. Cincinnati, for example, recently cut its Washington lobbying budget by 17 percent and may eliminate such spending altogether. "I don't think we're getting the kind of service we should for that amount of money," Mayor Charlie Luken, a former congressman, complained to his local newspaper recently. "I plan to do a lot more of the lobbying for the city myself."

Other mayors are just as convinced, however, that the money is well spent. The city of St. Joseph, Missouri, shares a federal lobbyist's time with the local college, hospital and chamber of commerce, an investment that Mayor David Jones says has paid off in additional highway money. "They know how to play the game better than us," Jones said during a recent visit to Washington. "Within an hour of a vote, we know how it affected St. Joseph. Having them up here to inform us is a huge benefit every day." Alan Autry agrees. "If you had to pick one or the other, an active mayor or a lobbyist," he says, "you better pick the lobbyist."

STRAINED RELATIONS

These days, hiring a friend in Washington may be about the only way a city can ensure that it will have one. Local officials are coming to town with low expectations and then finding even those too optimistic. Issues of the greatest importance to cities and counties barely register as a concern in the capital, even among members of Congress who used to be mayors or county commissioners themselves. When the problems do register, the first instinct often is to punt to the states, who can act as middlemen with the locals. The federal government has a constitutionally based relationship with states, and policy makers find it easier to keep an eye on how programs are doing in 50 states than tracking them through 19,000 local entities.

There is a widely stated notion that Republican control of both the White House and Congress makes federal relations even tougher for cities, whose political leadership is heavily Democratic. But municipal-federal relations seem to ebb and flow in ways that have more to do with institutional roles than with which party is in power. "Our membership is about half Democrats and half Republicans," says Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties, "and I don't think the Republicans are getting any more help than the Democrats from the federal level."

Bush administration officials, from Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on down, have offered repeated assurances to local officials that Washington will send them billions of dollars for police, fire fighters and other so-called first responders. But those checks have yet to be put in the mail. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, localities are out $2.6 billion in additional security costs for the year following the attacks of September 11, 2001. If the feds refuse to pay for a heightened state of alert for foreign terrorism, mayors complain, what would they pay for? "The perception is, here we come again with tin cup in hand," says Carol Kocheisen of the National League of Cities. "The other side of the equation is, we wouldn't be here again if you didn't want us to do X, Y and Z by yesterday."

There are other complaints as well. Because of accounting problems, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development plans to cut aid to public housing by 10 percent from the amount promised earlier. That figure was itself a reprieve of sorts; the reduction was originally supposed to be 30 percent. New federal education testing and reporting requirements are going to cost state and local governments billions, and the hopes of additional federal funding for that purpose are becoming ever more dim. Last year's federal election law allotted $4 billion to help pay for new voting machines and other improvements, but local officials doubt that much money will actually be appropriated.

Cities, meanwhile, are suing the Federal Communications Commission to reverse a ruling last March that declared cable modem service to be an "interstate information service." That means that cable companies providing this service don't have to pay fees to cities, as cable TV franchises do, or reimburse them for tearing up rights of way. The loss in fees to local governments could add up to about $200 million a year. Ken Fellman, the mayor of Arvada, Colorado, and chairman of an FCC advisory committee on intergovernmental relations, says his state's congressional delegation is sympathetic to the cities' plight in the matter. But, he says, it's simply not an issue that distracts their attention from matters such as Iraq and homeland security. "Public safety and transportation are much higher on their priority level than consumer privacy or local revenues," Fellman says.

BANDING TOGETHER

To cope with the FCC ruling and other telecommunications matters, more than 100 cities have formed a lobbying alliance. That kind of response is necessary, they say, because of the generally poor coverage of communications issues: Of four federal lobbyists at the National League of Cities, only one-third of the time of one of them is devoted to communications. The industries that cities are competing against, meanwhile, maintain some of the best-funded lobbies in Washington.

Local officials often feel outgunned in lobbying competition with private industry on many issues besides communications. For instance, cities and counties have not succeeded in several attempts at persuading Congress to pass legislation allowing them to force garbage haulers to take some of their waste to local facilities. (The Supreme Court ruled such requirements illegal in 1994.) "All the counties in the country couldn't defeat waste management companies," says one former city lobbyist who now works for Congress. "They don't pass out $100 bills."

Anyone who lobbies for local governments in Washington will tell you it's difficult right now to win any policy change aimed at helping cities in general. Decisions once made at the Cabinet level are now under strict White House control in the Bush administration. Where once the HUD secretary, for instance, was an internal advocate for more public housing funds, now he is more likely to toe the line in support of White House policies. "For all Andrew Cuomo's faults, he did have a relationship with the White House, one that was characterized by a robust debate with OMB over funding levels," says Kurt Creager, head of the Vancouver, Washington, housing authority, referring to Clinton's HUD secretary. "We don't have that anymore."

And--mostly under cloak of anonymity--local officials and lobbyists say that within the White House, the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, which was never terribly powerful to begin with, has further diminished in importance. Director Ruben Barrales has been moved out of the West Wing and split off from the domestic policy operation. Barrales' role is to be a facilitator, presenting local concerns to federal policy makers and explaining consequent policies to cities, counties and states. Barrales says he's doing just that. "We spend a lot of time advising the president and others in the White House about concerns of mayors and local officials at all levels," he says. "In many ways, a lobbying effort is always involved in wanting more."

Many local officials, however, complain that communication flows only in one direction, with the administration handing out marching orders and not listening to their arguments. "Ruben was given less resources to engage with local officials than were provided to me," says Mickey Ibarra, who ran the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs during the second Clinton term and now lobbies for cities and corporate clients. "In the current administration, they have lost their place. There's no pretense of involving them." For all of his insistence on White House openness to city and county concerns, even Barrales has a hard time listing many Bush administration programs or policies of specific benefit to localities.

LOCATION AND LUCK

And so the best thing for a mayor to do in Washington right now may be to avoid the broader policy questions and instead focus on specific projects, coming up with a strategy for converting them into earmarked dollars. Then he or she can present that strategy on the Hill and work the phones until it bears fruit.

It's a cliche that much success in life springs from the mere act of showing up, but it's a lesson that cities far from Washington forget at their peril. A few weeks ago, Autry and Simon sat in the office of U.S. Representative George Radanovich, hoping to persuade him to keynote a regional clean air summit in Fresno in April. Local governments from eight counties, along with farmers, environmentalists and business leaders, will be gathering to formulate a plan for cleaning up the stagnant air in Fresno and California's San Joaquin Valley, which the EPA is about to downgrade from "severe" to "extreme," a move that will do nothing to burnish the city's image. Autry hoped Radanovich, who represents parts of Fresno, would lend his congressional imprimatur to the resulting plan.

As it turned out, he got more than that. While Autry and Simon were talking to Radanovich, four officials from the federal Environmental Protection Agency were cooling their heels in the congressman's cramped reception area. Radanovich brought them into the meeting, and won a promise that a top-level EPA official would attend the summit. That was important because it would tacitly link the Bush administration to whatever plan might emerge, which in turn would help assuage the concerns of corporations looking for a place to locate.

It was a small but significant victory--and one that was achieved essentially by coincidence. The right people turned up in the right place at the right time. "We plan everything meticulously," says Leonard Simon, "and then let life take over. Location and timing are just extremely important."

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