The Laboratories of Local Government

I’ve been seeing a lot of discussion lately among pundits, policymakers, and academics about how local governments may be the new frontier for progressive experimentation.

A recent Washington Post headline postulated that incoming NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio could usher in a “new era of liberal governance.”  The article synopsis on the Post’s homepage suggested that “his administration would become a laboratory for modern progressivism.”  I was particularly struck by the word “laboratory.”

The very same day, I received the latest issue of the Harvard Law & Policy Review in my mailbox.  No offense to this esteemed publication, but I am normally not taken aback by the article topics, which tend to address hyper-technical aspects of law and policy and be geared toward academic thought.  But Volume 7-2 was a symposium titled “Progressive Cities: Innovative Solutions to Urban Problems.”  It included, among others, an article by Michael Negron, the Chief of Policy to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (and, incidentally, the co-founder and first president of the Harvard Law & Policy Review), which opened with this paragraph:

Washington-bashing is a tried and true tonic for local elected officials looking to portray their work as prodigious when compared to federal sclerosis.  Amidst bona fide dysfunction and partisan gridlock in the nation’s capital, however, local governments have received more attention as laboratories of innovative policy making.  In recognition of the increasing national significance of urban policy making, President Barack Obama established a White House Office of Urban Affairs.  Following failures at the federal level to achieve progress on a host of issues, cities have launched vacant land-use initiatives, rigorous gun control regimes, and public-private infrastructure banks.  These successes should embolden local leaders to greet federal and state inaction on issues of local importance as opportunities to develop novel solutions that can serve as examples for other municipalities to follow.

Michael Negron, Limited Authority, Big Impact: Chicago’s Sustainability Policies and How Cities Can Push an Agenda Amidst Federal and State Inaction, Harvard Law & Policy Review 7-2 at 277 (2013) (footnotes omitted).

Then, during oral arguments for the public prayer case on November 6th, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan called local government “the most responsive institution of government that exists.”

Indeed, in the absence of federal and state leadership, local governments have recently taken it upon themselves to try to raise our region’s minimum wage.  Meanwhile, progressive educational and advocacy groups geared toward municipal leaders have been springing up lately.  For instance, Local Progress was founded a little less than a year ago as a network of progressive local elected officials around the country who share model legislation, best practices, and innovative policy ideas specifically for local governments.  As its website notes, “Many organizations focus on federal and state policy, but too few pay attention to our nation’s cities and counties.  Local Progress is filling that gap.”  The rise of such organizations is a warmly welcomed development, but it begs the question, “why now?”  Why not 10 or 20 or 50 years ago?

I’m not sure why this mantra is coalescing at this particular time.  Perhaps, as Negron argues, people are finally just fed up with holding out hope for federal and state government institutions to ever be nimble and forward-thinking enough to take a leadership role on certain issues.  Congress can’t even pass a budget, let alone ENDA or immigration reform or a new Voting Rights Act that will supplant the Supreme Court’s recent ruling invalidating the VRA.  Statehouses (though thankfully not Maryland’s) are riddled with legislators and governors who are refusing to implement the ACA, are peeling back environmental regulations, are gerrymandering tea-party Congressional districts, are placing restrictions on a woman’s right to choose (again), and are transparently trying to restrict the fundamental right to vote for minorities, women, and the elderly with onerous Voter ID laws.

So it’s no wonder we are pivoting toward the level of government that is closest, most accessible, and most receptive to voters to try to make some headway on the grand challenges of our time–the new front in the movement toward progress.  After all, it was then-mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom who challenged the discriminatory marriage laws of California by conducting gay weddings on the steps of City Hall back in February 2004, leading to the eventual implementation of marriage equality throughout the State.

Local governments are also usually comprised of a much smaller group of legislators, making it more feasible logistically for legislators to get together and talk things out.  Plus, local legislatures usually aren’t hampered by draconian procedural rules like filibusters and committee bureaucracies offering a thousand ways to “kill a bill.”  In Gaithersburg, for example, with our five-member Council, a majority requires only three “aye” votes.

But whatever the reason, I’m glad to see the drumbeat of this message of local government leadership getting louder, especially since I’ve been preaching this approach for years.

Back in February 2010, I wrote a guest blog for Maryland Politics Watch in which I recounted my proposal shortly after I was first elected to the Gaithersburg City Council to explore a voluntary public campaign financing system.  I argued that the municipal sphere offered one of the most promising avenues for actually passing campaign finance reform legislation in Maryland, and I wrote this: “We all learned in high school civics class that our dual sovereignty system of government encourages states to be laboratories of innovation, particularly when the federal government is reluctant to embrace change. By the same token, Maryland has more than 150 cities and towns that can serve as laboratories of innovation for the Counties and the State.”

As a local government official, I know how important it is to try to work together with our state and federal leaders to get big things done.  And I am grateful for the incredible support and cooperation that we receive in Gaithersburg.  But perhaps it is time to usher in a new era in which local government is recognized as the primary driver of progress in our society.  The scope of local government authority is obviously much more limited than that of the state and federal governments, but we are small and flexible enough to explore, experiment, and implement new ideas much faster.  With creativity and vision, bolstered by community support, local governments have been — and will continue to be — leading the way on a whole host of policy areas from climate change to civil rights, from job creation to healthcare, and beyond.  So let’s think globally and act locally.

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