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Budget's past, present and future fuel panel discussion.

No one played 'Hail to the Chief' as Chris Matthews of ABC's Good Morning America took center stage following President Bush's keynote address to the NLC Congressional-Cities conference in Washington, D.C. last week.

It was a little like a group of jugglers following Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show. The crush of camera crews and swirl of Secret Service agents were gone. The lights seemed a little dimmer, the crowd a little smaller and the metal detectors no longer necessary.

Matthews was there to host a panel discussion on the federal budget, the economy and the nation's cities. The discussion juggled everything from the federal deficit to the military budget to the suburbanization of America as it swept back to the days when Elvis really was king and forward to America's future.

Joining Matthews in this counterpoint to the President's address were: Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD), Chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), a member of the House Budget, Judiciary and Banking Committees and Representative Christopher Shays (R-CT), a member of the Urban House Caucus and the House Government Operations Committee.

The discussion turned on three questions forged by Matthews. The first question asked how the nation had come by its present situation; a situation characterized by Matthews as one marked by decay and decline of the nation's great cities.

For Shays and Matthews, much of the key to that decline was in federal policies that moved both jobs and people out of the central city. Frank called federal policy in housing and transportation over the last five decades one of "federal subsidies for the suburbanization of America." Shays said that federal transportation policies simply built roads that moved jobs away from the nation's cities.

Frank also said that many of the nation's nd the cities' woes stem from "trying to out Bo Jackson, Bo Jackson from 1945 until now," by competing with strength in a domestic economy with countries, such as Germany and Japan, which had no military expenditures and by competing militarily with the Soviet Union which had no domestic economy.

"At least when Bo Jackson goes to the ball park, everyone is playing the same game," Frank said of the professional football and baseball star.

Matthews also asked the panel what each policymaker would do with the budget and for America's cities if they were "dictator" or, at least, enjoyed the executive power of the Presidency.

For Sarbanes such an opportunity should be recognized, first, as "an opportunity the nation has not had in the last five decades," since the beginning of the Cold War.

The opportunity comes in a recession that, according to Sarbanes, has been exacerbated by cuts in the federal investment in cities. Budget cuts, like those suffered in the Community Development Block Grant and the HOME housing programs, reduce the amount of dollars cities, already devastated by the downturn in local revenues, can inject in their local economies, Sarbanes said. He characterized such cuts as "terrible mistakes."

Beyond the correction of such cuts, Sarbanes called for the tearing down of the federal budget "firewalls" between types of spending so that savings from military reductions could be used to invest new dollars in education, worker training and local infrastructure projects.

Shays also decried the decay of the nation's cities and called for new investment incentives to return business to those cities. He said that the nation's cities need to be rebuilt, not bailed out, through a new flexibility on environmental regulations within central cities and other incentives for the return of investment to those areas. Shays said he is working on a "Marshall Plan" for cities to create those new incentives.

Frank called on conservatives to heed their own statements and recognize the limits of what government can do. Frank said government cannot rebuild the family, an effort mentioned by the President in his address to the conference. Instead, government should concentrate on things it can do, such as cut the nation's military forces by 50%, and use those savings to invest in domestic needs, including urban needs, Frank said.

"Dollars alone can't solve the problems of our cities, but we can't do anything without dollars," Frank told the NLC delegates.

Those dollars, however, are not as easy to come by as many would portray, Shays told the municipal officials.

"Don't get your hopes up on a peace dividend," Shays said.

Shays said that "dividend" not only has to compete with concerns over the $400 billion deficit expected in this year's budget, but with Republicans and Democrats who will not vote for military budget cuts that will result in both military and defense industry lay-offs in their Congressional districts.

Dovetailing with Shays' points, Sarbanes said that significant reductions in military spending can only occur when accompanied by an aggressive "conversion program" moving both capital and skilled employees from military to civilian industries. He pointed to the radar industry as an industry integral to the nation's past military efforts that in a post-Cold War economy could be used to dramatically upgrade the nation's airport radar systems.

And behind the big picture of the past and future? What could be done in the next year for the nation's cities, Matthews asked the panelists as his final question?

Tell our allies that they will have to start picking up some of the tab for their own security and get serious about reductions in military expenditures, Frank said.

Frank compared with nation's security expenditures for our allies to the story of Tom Sawyer and the white fence. "They (our allies) had us paint the fence for twenty years and they did Tom Sawyer one better by making us pay for the privilege," Frank said.

A serious effort to reduce military spending would eventually amount to a shift of 3% to 4% of GNP from the military to more domestic and urban investment, Frank said.

From Shays view, such dramatic shifts over the next year is not what municipal officials should expect. He told the delegates he expected very little change in the federal budget from last year to the new year. As an example, even if the votes are there in Congress to take down the "firewalls" in federal spending, Shays expects the President to veto such a more and for that veto to be sustained.

With the end of the Cold War, the nation has a "marvelous opportunity and challenge" before it in the next year to reinvest in its industrial strength, Sarbanes said. He said that was possible only if the nation began concentrating on a conversion program that would make significant military reduction possible.

He also repeated his call for the tearing down of the federal spending firewalls so new dollars could be used for domestic programs that would help spark economic growth.

The President, any President, is a tough act to follow. The flashbulb edge to the room leaves with the nation's leader. And what is left are the incremental and two-edged choices that are the stuff of the nation's opportunities and perils. What is left is the difficult and sometimes disappointing process of making America work day in and day out. What is left is a panel discussion much more akin in style to governance at both the federal and municipal level, than is the excitement of a Presidential visit.

John K. Mahoney is the editor of Ohio Cities and Villages, the official publication of the Ohio Municipal League.
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Author:Mahoney, John K.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Mar 16, 1992
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