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Will Infrastructure Be a Casualty of the GOP War on Cities?

Republican resistance isn’t just about taxes. It’s rooted in the party’s hostility toward urban initiatives that has played out on a broad range of issues.

Construction cranes working on a large bridge.
Amid the yearslong battle over a major federal infrastructure program, there’s a puzzle. Every community across the country is full of bridges in need of repair, streets and highways that need repaving, and water and sewer lines with leaks. If there ever was a something-for-everyone program, it would seem to be infrastructure. After all, nearly two-thirds of Americans think that the federal government isn’t spending enough on infrastructure projects where they live.

But during both the Trump and Biden administrations, support for a federal infrastructure program has been split sharply along party lines. Why? Lurking in the background of the infrastructure debate is the sharp and largely successful war on cities waged by Republicans at the state and federal level.

Even in the Trump years, which regularly featured “infrastructure week,” his can’t-miss plan never got off the ground. Republicans claimed that the problem was how to pay for it, but at a time when they were passing a $1.5 trillion tax cut, borrowing didn’t seem to be a problem.

President Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan is more than twice as big as Trump’s biggest proposal, and early on it seemed to be one of the rare initiatives that Democrats and Republicans might agree on. “I think infrastructure could be one of the biggest bipartisan successes for this nation,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told a TV station in his home state of California.

That brief flash of optimism quickly faded. While Democrats point to the Biden plan as a road map to economic growth, Republicans attack it as “so broad and ambitious ... that it seems there is little if anything they do not consider or call infrastructure,” as Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama put it. As for funding it, “it looks like a $2 trillion tax hike to me,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves told CNN.

But taxes are only part of the story. Mississippi, like every state, would benefit from the infrastructure bill. Standing in the way is the Republican war on cities, exemplified by President Trump’s attacks on a pandemic relief package last year. He tweeted, “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states ... and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed?”

Moreover, there’s a big difference between the parties in the enthusiasm for infrastructure. At the state level, as a Brookings Institution study found, Democratic governors and candidates tend to dig into the whole collection of infrastructure problems much more deeply and support them more broadly. Republican politicians, for their part, have sought to use infrastructure as a wedge between the federal government and the cities and between the cities and state capitols.

That form of wedge politics has been playing out for years across a broad range of issues. Many states, for example, have tried to block urban initiatives to boost the minimum wage and to prevent LGBTQ discrimination. They’ve been attempting to rein in the power of local governments to impose their own pandemic-related mask mandates and stay-at-home and business-closure orders.

Overall, there’s been a rise in state pre-emptions of local government authority. With powerful support from the National Rifle Association, for example, several states have allowed private interests to file suit against local officials over firearms restrictions. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has written “model legislation” that 29 states have used to rein in the power of local governments to restrict pesticide use. Thirty-five states now have limits on property taxes imposed by local governments. Texas and other states have debated broad pre-emption bills to stop the creation of sanctuary cities.

In one sense, there’s nothing new here. As Richard C. Schragger argued in a Texas Law Review article, “an enduring feature of American federalism is its anti-urbanism.” Cities have become powerful concentrations of political power. In many states, that means Democratic power at odds with Republicans in state legislatures, especially as the Republicans have pressed their advantage through the use of redistricting to shrink Democrats’ power. Of course, frictions among Democrats, such as battles between New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, are epic. But the polarization between Republicans in state capitols and Democrats in the cities often puts Washington frictions to shame.

In the American system, water often flows uphill, with local-state battles creating battle lines that carry over into Washington policymaking. That’s a big reason why federal infrastructure programs have been stalled for so long. Democrats have tried to leverage them to channel money to hard-pressed cities, which they feel are too often neglected by their states. Republicans have attacked infrastructure as debt-increasing profligacy, giving money to cities that haven’t taken proper care of themselves.

Infrastructure bills may seem to be can’t-miss presidential programs because they provide goodies to everyone. But the war with cities makes it harder than ever to build the bipartisan support they need, and that has repeatedly shrunk the odds of success.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.


Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
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