As Washington digests the midterm elections, one thing is clear—America’s cities shouldn’t expect new help from a divided and likely deadlocked Congress. With cities facing difficult economic circumstances and tight budgets, federal help in the next two years can only come from the executive branch, and from the impacts of programs President Biden passed in the first two years.
The narrow Republican takeover of the House of Representatives puts anti-city forces in charge of one Congressional branch. Only 34 of the nation’s 435 House districts are defined as “pure urban,” in CityLab’s Congressional Density Index, and prior to November’s midterm votes, only 3 of those were held by Republicans.
In comparison, 73 House districts are classified as “pure rural,” and prior to the election 62 were held by Republicans. So Republican control of the House means little sympathy or support for city issues. Although most Democrats also don’t come from purely urban districts, urban representatives (often people of color) have a good deal of power in the Democratic caucus.
Donald Trump’s continuing power in the Republican Party also hurts cities. Although Trump is weakened after candidates he backed lost, he’s running for the 2024 presidential nomination. He’s no longer an automatic lock for the nomination. But he remains popular, especially among the most committed Republican voters who have big impacts on state and local party politics and primaries.
Racialized anti-city positions are a staple of Trump’s rhetoric and policies. While President, he called Elijah Cumming’s Baltimore Congressional district a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” And in June of this year, Trump called America a “cesspool of crime” where in “Democrat run cities, Democrat run states, and a Democrat run federal government, the criminals have been given free rein.” And whether or not Trump is the nominee, anti-city rhetoric will remain a Republican staple, especially racialized fears of crime.
Losing the House also means very sharp limits on Biden’s inability to pass major spending or tax legislation. In Biden’s first two years, Democrats used the arcane “budget reconciliation” process to bypass Senate filibusters requiring 60 votes. These special procedures only can be used for budget, tax, and spending bills, which can then be passed with a simple majority.
Biden used budget reconciliation for two major pieces of legislation: the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Some observers credit the impact of these bills, along with Biden’s other economic policies, as major contributors to Democratic success in the midterms.
ARPA provided billions for COVID-19 pandemic related spending, including extended expanded unemployment benefits, direct payments to households, and expanded child and anti-poverty tax provisions. The IRA, after much wrangling with Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), increased climate and energy spending, provided for regulation of prescription drugs, raised taxes on businesses, and extended health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
Cities were major beneficiaries of the two big spending bills. ARPA provided needed COVID-19 relief while some cities used the funds for “transformational” projects in housing, public safety, and other policies. And the IRA contains a number of urban-friendly programs, especially in climate policy. A guidebook from Climate Mayors and the global organization C40 Cities says the federal billions are designed to “leverage billions of dollars of additional private investment,” leading to “the largest investment in climate action ever made by the United States.”
Cities also will benefit from one of the few bipartisan bills passed in the first two years—the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The bill authorizes $400 billion annually for projects across the nation, distributed mostly through existing programs. It lifted authorized infrastructure spending by over 80%, although it remains to be seen if a divided Congress will fully fund the bill’s spending each year.
And prospects for significant bipartisan cooperation seem close to zero with the 2024 election already looming. Republicans already have signaled they will carry out major investigations into coronavirus policy, immigration, and Biden’s son Hunter. And some Trump-affiliated Republicans are advocating impeachment for Attorney General Merrick Garland, Vice-President Kamala Harris, and even President Biden himself.
New York Times columnist Ezra Klein says the strength of the hard-core Trump supporters in Congress means continuing governmental “crises.” These include possible financial disruptions by threatening not to renew the federal debt limit, and political disruption by legitimating false election denier claims.
Republicans also could launch investigations of city policies around immigration (Trump tried to take away federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities” in his first term). Attacks on anti-discrimination and fair housing policies could be featured, especially for suburban jurisdictions And crime and police will be a major item, as fears of crime are central to the Republican electoral strategy for tipping suburban voters away from Democrats.
Of course, cities will still have friends in the Executive Branch. Biden appointees like Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigeig and HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge work closely with mayors on a wide range of issues, from transportation to housing to public health. So cities don’t have to fear intrusive new regulations or lawsuits from the federal government.
But increased Republican power over spending, and their ability to conduct aggressive oversight and investigation, mean that cities face a much more hostile Congressional environment as we head for 2024’s presidential election.