The Cost Of Being Blue

The division between the red and blue Americas has become a familiar topic for political talk shows. But it is a lot more than that. It has real-world consequences, effects that can be measured in hundreds of millions of dollars in federal spending.

The county-by-county maps, displaying vast expanses of red where George W. Bush prevailed for the second time in the Nov. 2 election, show a spreading Republican tide big enough to produce his overall 51 percent majority vote. Those blue dots on the map are the pockets of Democratic resistance, where John Kerry was able to win.

The blue dots are not just political blotches, however. They are the cities from Atlanta to Seattle, home to tens of millions of Americans. They are also the places where in the past federal programs — subsidies to schools, police departments, transit systems and, most notably, housing agencies — were vital.

The impact of these election returns was exhibited vividly and in damaging fashion in the catch-all government spending bill the Republican-controlled Congress cleared three weeks after Election Day.

The legislators who fashioned that bill and the president who will sign it get their votes from red America. The legislators and advocates who counted up the consequences come from the blue-dot city constituencies.

Listen, for example, to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Baltimore, the former social worker who sits on the Appropriations Committee, where the bill was assembled. Her subcommittee increased funding for veterans’ medical care and found money to enable NASA to send a servicing robot to save the Hubble Space Telescope.

“However,” she said on the Senate floor, “those increases came at a price. To provide those needed increases for veterans and NASA, we had to cut essential programs. . . . We were forced to cut housing for the elderly by $26 million. Housing for the disabled is cut by $10 million. The Community Development Block Grant program, one of the most important programs in this bill and one of the most important programs for state and local government, is cut by $200 million compared to last year. . . . Thanks to the Republican budget cuts, we are shifting the burden of environmental protection to state and local governments. Overall, EPA is cut by over $300 million compared to last year. . . . That means every state will get less money for sewer construction.”

Sheila Crowley, a longtime housing advocate, wrote to the members of her organization, “People who need or rely on public housing, Indian housing, elderly housing, housing for people with AIDS or who are disabled, block grants for affordable housing and community development, and even homeless assistance will have to do with less in the coming year. . . . Tougher times are ahead for low-income people in the United States.”

But presidents and members of Congress respond to those who put them in office. As Ronald Brownstein and Richard Rainey wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Bush’s biggest gains came in 100 fast-growing exurban counties, on the far fringes of metropolitan areas, where the countryside is giving way to new housing developments. Many of the families filling those homes are transplants from the cities.

It is no coincidence that the part of the federal government most closely attuned to urban problems is the Cabinet agency most remote from this White House. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been run — even in Republican administrations — by prominent and dynamic figures, from George Romney to Jack Kemp. Today, few in Washington can even name the man in charge of the city agenda.

Recognizing this change, the U.S. Conference of Mayors — the most potent of the city lobbies — is adopting new tactics. After lamenting the losses in programs that subsidized police hiring and encouraged urban development projects, Tom Cochran, the veteran head of the mayors group, said it was shifting its focus from the cities themselves to entire metropolitan areas — highlighting their economic power and hoping to harness their political clout with Republicans.

On Dec. 8, 30 mayors and major business leaders will meet for a “summit” in Washington, Cochran said, in hopes of putting some muscle behind urban programs from a corporate constituency that the White House will have reason to heed.

Because business has a huge investment in America’s downtowns, the alliance makes sense. By themselves, those who live in — and lead — the blue-dot cities are clearly the big losers in this election year. Unless they get help, their programs are on the chopping block.