New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has announced plans to join forces with hundreds of other mayors around the country in an effort called “Cities for Action.” This group, according to de Blasio, will provide a counterweight to the policies of the incoming Trump administration: “If you combine the power of America’s cities, that could really be a game changer in terms of moderating that agenda.”
Progressive calls to “resist” Trump have increased since the election. Liberals who had long dedicated their political souls to the principle of centralized government have lately discovered what they call “progressive federalism.” Appeals on social media for “massive resistance” to Trump are direct, though probably unintentional, echoes of Senator Harry Byrd’s 1958 vow to shut down Virginia’s public schools rather than integrate them.
To de Blasio’s credit, he has been a realist about Trump’s victory, and appeared ready to accept the election results immediately. When asked in November why he didn’t demand that the president-elect move his transition headquarters out of midtown Manhattan, de Blasio responded succinctly, “I don’t think you understand how this works.” Unlike some of his fellow New York City progressives, the mayor hasn’t fallen into the rabbit hole of fervid speculation about Russian electoral intervention.
But de Blasio continues to overstate the extent to which he—as a municipal officer—is endowed with powers that can check federal authority. On November 10, de Blasio told the press, “we’re part of a nation that was founded on a federalist approach, where a lot of power devolves to the state level and then down to the local level.” A few days later, appearing on a popular hip-hop radio station, he repeated, “look, the constitutional system has got its strengths and weaknesses, but it really gives a lot of power to states and localities.” Two weeks later, following his first post-election meeting with Trump, de Blasio stated, “I think the most important point here is the United States Constitution makes clear that local governments make most of the decisions for their own people.” And on December 29, the mayor said, “The Constitution is the issue here. The Constitution makes very clear that tremendous amount of power is held in local hands and that can be the state level, that can be the municipal level. . . . That, to me, makes abundantly clear that there are severe limits on what the federal government can compel localities to do.”
De Blasio is repeating a junior-high level understanding of how federalism works, with power divided between the federal, state, and local levels of government. But while the Constitution has a lot to say about the power of the states, it says absolutely nothing about cities, or any other form of locality. The Constitution requires each state to offer a republican form of government to its citizens, but a series of early twentieth-century Supreme Court decisions clearly established the principle that cities are entirely creations of their states. The Contracts Clause, the Due Process Clause, and even the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment do not apply to municipalities or local authorities. The court summed up its perspective in a key 1933 ruling: “A municipal corporation, created by a state for the better ordering of government, has no privileges or immunities under the Federal Constitution which it may invoke in opposition to the will of its creator.”
In theory, the federal government is constrained constitutionally in its authority over the states. But if the experience of the massive postwar expansion of federal power has taught states anything, it’s that they fight Washington at their own risk. The federal government’s power to disburse money and to punish states (or obstreperous localities) with the denial of federal funds largely overrides the finer points of federalist jurisprudence.
New York is extremely vulnerable in this area. James Parrott, of the liberal Fiscal Policy Institute, glumly acknowledges that the city and state together take in about $57 billion from the federal government annually, which “poses gargantuan challenges for New York state and city budgets.” This aggregate sum covers Medicaid and public housing assistance, as well as capital funding for the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Health + Hospitals Corporation. Even a small reduction in the flow of federal dollars would make it hard for an executive as allergic to social spending cuts as de Blasio to resist political pressure from Washington.
The nation’s mayors can form caucuses of resistance or platforms of “maximum simultaneous activity” as much as they want. Like it or not, however, de Blasio and his colleagues will have to swallow a healthy portion of whatever medicine the incoming administration is preparing for them.
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