Americans love local government. Why?


Last week, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released the results of its latest survey of Americans’ opinions about government. Washington fared poorly: the federal government’s 28% favorability rating represents its lowest reading since Pew began conducting the survey in 1997. In contrast, local governments fared quite well. Over 60% of Americans have a favorable opinion of their local government.

That’s interesting, because the federal government works better than most local governments, for the following three reasons.

First, individual special interest groups have more influence at the local level than they do at the national level, in part because there are fewer of them. In most communities, public employee unions are the only groups that are organized, permanent, well-funded, professionally staffed and clearly influential. Unions dominate the local scene in a way that the NRA, AARP or the American Association for Justice could only dream of dominating Washington, D.C. In a 2005 study of teachers’ union influence on school board elections in California, Stanford University’s Terry Moe found that union-endorsed candidates won 76% of the time, a figure that rose to 92% in the case of union-endorsed incumbents.

Certainly lobbyists are a major force in national politics — indeed, so much so that K Street may be D.C.’s best insurance against federal budget cuts. As Aaron Renn wrote in a recent City Journal article, it’s not just government spending that boosts the D.C. economy, it’s the regulations and threat of more regulations, which stimulate demand for lobbyists. “Washington has discovered a new way to extract value from the federal government, based not just on spending but on an ever-expanding regulatory state.” Often, the most effective counter to a special interest is another special interest. D.C.’s hundreds of interest groups check each other’s influence.

This special-interest counterbalancing is less common at the local level. Chambers of commerce and good-government groups tend to either avoid determined, bare-knuckled advocacy or become effective only when part of larger coalitions organized on an ad hoc basis. Unions, by contrast, are relentlessly engaged in their efforts to “elect [their] own boss” and protect their benefits and privileges.

Second, fiscal management is more sophisticated and rigorous at the federal level. Take something as apparently simple as multiyear planning. How much should taxes be increased, and/or spending cut, to reduce federal deficit growth over the next decade? Absent reform, how much of the federal budget will be devoted to health care in 2020? Thanks to the good services of the Congressional Budget Office, the second question can be answered and the first question debated on an informed basis.

Local governments rarely project their revenue and expenditure trends out even four to five years, much less 10 years. When Baltimore commissioned a 10-year financial forecast earlier this year, The Bond Buyer described the action as unprecedented among large American cities. Another exception that proves the rule is New York City, which does plan, but only as a legacy of the city’s near-default in 1975, after which state government imposed a series of rigorous financial controls that remain in place to this day.

Third, voters are more engaged in federal politics than they are in local politics, which means that federal officials are more accountable than their local counterparts. Between 50 and 55 percent of the adult population votes in presidential elections. Turnout in local elections is typically 25 to 35 points lower when those elections don’t coincide with state or national elections, which they usually don’t. Most local officials are elected with the explicit backing of only a fraction of the public.

It’s a bit of a conundrum, this inverse relationship between Americans’ engagement with their governments and their approval of them. If Americans respect local government so much, why are they so unengaged? Their greater level of engagement with national politics suggests that they are more informed about the federal government. Perhaps if they were better informed about local government, they would view it less favorably.

To the framers, federalism’s chief advantage was that it protected liberty by forcing the national government to share power with states and their subordinate localities. This argument remains persuasive. The many flaws of local government point to the need for reform, not a need for a stronger national government. But with almost two-thirds of Americans having a favorable opinion of their local government, reform is going to be a challenge.

Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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