What Congress Can Learn From Mayors

Oct 23, 2013
Originally published on October 24, 2013 2:00 pm
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And let's move, now, from the troubles of one city to the success of many other cities and what Washington might learn from them. Through the continuous cycle of crises at the federal level, Mesa, Ariz., Mayor Scott Smith has been arguing that local governments in cities across the country set examples of how different sides can work together and accomplish important goals.

Mayor Smith also serves as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and he joins us on the line. Mayor, thanks for coming on the program.

MAYOR SCOTT SMITH: Thanks for having me, David.

GREENE: You have spent some time now trying to draw a stark contrast between the dysfunction in Congress, and what you say is more constructive work that's taking place in cities. Make that case for me.

SMITH: At the city level, we're blessed to have to do things, regardless of what our financial situation is. We have to figure out a way to pick up the trash on Thursday, to answer 9-1-1 calls, and to serve our citizens. Washington would be well-served to look and see how Democrats and Republicans alike, at the local level, put aside ideological differences - or at least work within the constraints of ideological differences, to do the work of the people. We get things done. We make decisions. A lot of times, those decisions aren't easy. It's not easy to lay people off. It's not easy to shut libraries. It's not easy to do the hard things that you have to do when you are balancing your budget while at the same time, striving to maintain high levels of services. But at the city level, we somehow figure out a way to get it done.

GREENE: There are some, Mayor Smith, who might argue that this is actually the design of the founders; that local state governments are supposed to be closer to the people, more responsive to their needs, and that when Washington is sort of having these big political battles and local and state governments are working effectively, that the founders would be OK with that.

SMITH: If you're trying to follow the founders' example, I think we've taken it a little to the extreme. I don't know that they wanted the government to be completely dysfunctional. They just didn't want it to be driven by impulse, or by the whims of the people. I think one of the biggest problems is that those in Washington really had no consequences. Most of the people involved, regardless of which side you were on, go home to their safe districts and preach to the choir. And at the same time, you have people like we did in Arizona.

You look at the hotel owner up in Tucson, which is at the entrance to the Grand Canyon. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Smith accurately placed the hotel in Tusayan, Ariz., during this interview but because of an audio editing error, he's heard saying the hotel is in Tucson.] There's economic loss that that owner will never get back. In one day, he was hit with 70 percent cancellations because the park was shut down. They were, in many ways, pawns in the game. I'm not sure that that's what the founding fathers had in mind.

GREENE: An article by Lawrence Summers comes to mind - former Treasury secretary, an adviser to a Democratic president, Barack Obama - who did an article that was titled "Gridlock is Good." And he basically said that more legislation, more action by Congress does not necessarily mean a good thing. And oftentimes, it's your party, your Republican Party that takes that stance. Why is that not something we can sort of accept right now, to get through this?

SMITH: I would not disagree with that. I think that the more deliberate Washington is - and gridlock can be good. But I think that when dysfunction becomes your norm, it has an impact that goes far beyond the political process. What Washington can do is very simple, and that is to create some sort of confidence and stability. And whether there's gridlock, it has to be gridlock with a design, almost.

I think the thing that people wondered about is: What, really, are we trying to accomplish here? Even as a Republican, I knew what the message was. I wasn't clear what the endgame was. And so when you have that feeling that Washington does not have real strategy, it doesn't really bring a lot of confidence. Confidence is what really, in the end, creates recoveries.

GREENE: When you were on our air in February during the debate over sequestration, you said that your constituents in Mesa, Ariz., were responding to what was happening in Washington with a collective yawn. Does the same go for this recent shutdown and debt debate?

SMITH: Well, I think yes and no. I don't think it's a yawn anymore, but they simply shake their head and roll their eyes. And you saw the stock market, even. When the shutdown first came in and everything, they didn't fall to pieces - because people just say OK, this is business as usual. Now, you look at an issue like Obamacare, that's different. But I separate that from, really, the other issue we're talking about, which is the dysfunction. It certainly is a factor in that, but it's just the issue of the day. You know, a year ago, it was another issue; and a year from now, it'll probably be another issue. But the standard thing that I think people have grown weary of, and have grown bored with, are the theatrics of Washington.

GREENE: Scott Smith is the mayor of Mesa, Ariz. He's also the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for coming on the program.

SMITH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.