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SUNDAY, APRIL 10, 2005

At least Congress is listening to mayors

WASHINGTON – Cabinet officers are not usually candidates for mass sympathy. But unless your heart was made of stone, you had to feel for two members of President Bush’s domestic policy team, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, when they appeared recently before the House Committee on Financial Services.

Bush has proposed a major reassignment of responsibilities between the two departments, shifting the largest urban program, the $4.7 billion Community Development Block Grant, and 17 smaller programs from HUD to Commerce.

Gutierrez, a former cereal manufacturer and polished business executive, clearly was struggling to explain why a department whose responsibilities range from weather forecasting to export promotion would be an ideal custodian of housing and neighborhood redevelopment.

Jackson had an even more thankless task: to appear supportive and comfortable with an ordered change that rips the guts out of his department and is vehemently opposed by the most important of his grass-roots constituents, Republican and Democratic mayors.

They were supposed to be joined at the witness table by Clay Johnson, a deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, where this cockamamie idea was born. But Johnson submitted a statement and did not show up.

Probably just as well. The Senate had already signaled what it thought of the idea by voting 68-31 in favor of an amendment knocking the transfer authority out of the budget bill. That amendment was offered by Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, of Minnesota, a former mayor of St. Paul, who said he was operating on behalf of the collective wishes of mayors of both parties from cities large and small.

Time was when presidents not only listened to mayors, they sought their advice. HUD has been run by former mayors through much of its history, but this is an administration whose political base stretches outward from city boundaries through the suburbs and into the gloriously red precincts of exurbia and rural townships.

For Bush, city voters are no more than an afterthought, so why not put a vital urban program into a department where bottom-line corporate thinking is the norm?

What the White House may have missed is that other Republicans cannot be quite as dismissive of the views of their mayors and those urban voters.

Even before Jackson and Gutierrez got to read their brief prepared statements, two senior Republican legislators expressed doubts about their mission.

Michael Oxley, the full committee chairman, and Bob Ney, the head of its housing and community opportunity subcommittee, are both from the battleground state of Ohio, and both have substantial urban populations in their districts.

Oxley told the Cabinet members he had “lots of questions” about the proposal and Ney was even blunter, saying, “I have opposed it publicly.”

A third Ohio Republican, Rep. Deborah Pryce of Columbus, a member of the House leadership, said that her constituents prized the “great flexibility” of CDBG funds and asked Gutierrez how he could guarantee that Commerce Department bureaucrats would be equally sensitive to local needs.

But it was Republican Rep. Sue Kelly of New York, who represents five counties in the Hudson Valley, who really blew the whistle on this scheme. “My communities are frightened,” she said. “They are in turmoil, because they don’t know how they will be affected” if this goes through. “No specifics have been given.”

Gutierrez allowed that “I understand the nervousness,” and said he wanted to reach out to the communities.

When Kelly said local officials wanted to know whether there would be “a hard landing or a soft landing” for partially completed projects, Jackson said he couldn’t commit beyond the current-year funding.

Gutierrez promised to set up an advisory committee of local officials to consult about next steps, but said specific legislation would not be ready for Congress until the end of this month.

Meantime, the president is proposing to cut the funding for these urban programs – 4 percent, according to the Cabinet members; 35 percent, according to the Democrats’ calculations.

As a planning exercise, this has all the hallmarks of the bungled Iraq occupation. But this time, Congress is likely to just say no.

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