The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Is there a tea party urbanism?

Many conservatives, especially tea party conservatives, strongly believe in removing powers and taxes from the federal government and transferring power to states and localities. At the moment, this view has strong support in Congress, especially the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Photo by motograf on Flickr.

Is this necessarily incompatible with the goals of urbanists, even progressive ones? In many ways, the two movements could find a lot of common ground if they can move past mutual distrust and some overheated rhetoric. To its credit, the tea party opposed Governor McDonnell's plan to borrow to build more roads, for example.

Both DC and Northern Virginia counties pay taxes to a higher level of government which then returns significant amounts of that money directly according to a formula. Both also have limits put on their autonomy by that higher level of government; in DC's case, it's the feds, and for Virginia, it's the state government. Much of the money that doesn't come back to the locality turns into subsidies to other areas.

Tea partiers don't like this because the state is telling local government what to do, and charging a lot of money; urbanists don't like this because places which make efficient land use choices that minimize government spending on infrastructure just end up subsidizing places which don't. Can both find common ground to reduce this practice and give local areas more autonomy?

One House Republican floated the idea of exempting District residents from federal income tax (though his spokesperson says it's not on the table). A group of Republicans also proposed cutting off all federal funding for a variety of DC functions, which leaders say would be "catastrophic" for DC.

If combined, however, DC could raise its own income taxes to recover some of the missing cost. The Republican Study Group wanted to cut $210 million from DC-related spending plus the $150 million a year to WMATA, whereas DC residents paid $3.6 billion in taxes last year.

If both measures passed together and Congress didn't try to stop DC from raising its local income tax to compensate, the District might be able to cover the $210 million on its own and even pay the federal share of WMATA's capital contributions out of the new revenue, and still keep taxes lower on average.

Let's also cut the National Park Service's budget while also eliminating its authority over all parks in DC except for the Mall area.

The federal government also gives each state, including DC, money for Medicaid, transportation, and many other types of payments allocated by formula. Medicaid and transportation, in particular, come out of payroll taxes and gas taxes, and it's not clear if the $3.6 billion number includes those. It can't include everything, since one IRS list says total federal tax receipts from DC total over $20 billion. Brookings estimated that DC received $2.7 billion in formula money in 2008.

Would conservatives and tea party activists like this? Anyone who simply wants to see lower taxes might be somewhat but not entirely pleased. Those who want to give more power to lower levels of government, however, ought to find common cause with those who chafe at federal policies which deprive metropolitan areas of the ability to set their own priorities and the fruit of their own economic activity.

Similar principles apply in Virginia. The state government collects many taxes and pays them to localities by formula. The Dillon Rule limits the abilities of counties to set many of their own policies. If the Virginia tea party indeed wants to see counties and cities do more legislating for themselves, perhaps both urbanists and tea partiers can support repealing the Dillon Rule and those state taxes, and letting individual counties decide if they want to assess comparable taxes to cover those programs or not.

Virginia tea partiers likewise could support letting the Northern Virginia counties directly raise the money they pay to WMATA, instead of having the state collect it from Northern Virginia taxpayers, and to keep WMATA Board membership in the hands of local officials instead of state ones.

Likewise, Northern Virginia counties, working together, should set their own transportation priorities. Why not give each county or city its own share of the gas tax directly, and let them fund transportation improvements in their own areas or use that revenue in other ways as they see fit?

The Washington region would become much more self-sufficient, which is something tea partiers and urbanists should both be able to support. Liberal local governments might still choose to levy taxes to pay for various services, but shouldn't that be a local decision? The federal government or state government in Richmond would be making fewer decisions affecting residents' everyday lives, which is a good goal.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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This is brilliant stuff. Seriously.

It's hugely important for Smart Growth Placemaking TOD types to cultivate support across the entire political spectrum, for any number of reasons, including one very practical one, programmatic durability across administrations.

Reaching out to religious organizations is another "diplomatic mission" that needs to be undertaken. Where are all the churches, mosques, temples, synagogues in New Urbanism?

My favorite recent epigraph comes from the Center for Clean Air Policy's "Growing Wealthier" report. It's from Jeremiah (one of the biblical prophets, fy'all'sI):

"Build houses and live in them//plant gardens and eat their fruit.//Seek the welfare of the city//in which you live,// and pray to the Eternal in its behalf;//for in its prosperity you shall prosper."

by jnb on Feb 9, 2011 10:51 am • linkreport

A little odd that anyone could think there could be any common ground between "urbanists" and the tea party, considering the link you provided also listed a scathing report called:

"New Urbanism Forced on Rural Communities" where they went all scorched earth on everything urbanists hold dear.

So no, there is no connection and this isn't an "enemy of my enemy is my friend scenario. Just because they opposed spending billions on roads, doesn't mean they want to spend billions on causes dear to the urbanists heart. Quite the opposite actually.

And lastly, I would be very careful in what you ask for in terms of "cutting" DC off from the federal trough.

The tax foundation has identified the District (per capita) as the biggest welfare "state" in the union, stating that the District gets $6 dollars back for every dollar it pays in federal taxes.

We paid 3.6 billion in taxes last year. Does that mean the feds gave us a total of 20 billion spread through the variety of programs the feds fund? I dunno, but I do know that the District will never be allowed to tax the income earned by VA and MD, and short of any other miracle, there is no way DC could come anywhere close to meeting the variety of its financial obligations sans Uncle Sam.

by freely on Feb 9, 2011 10:59 am • linkreport

The teabaggers aren't about local governance being more important than higher governance. They're about states' rights. For example, the federal health care law is completely unacceptable to them, but the Massachusetts one passed a few years ago is perfectly fine, since the state did it.

Another example: they want to do away with the 17th amendment. They want to take the power away from the people to elect Senators and instead give it to the state legislature.

Now, since DC isn't a state, DC obviously shouldn't have rights like states do. NoVa is also not a state, so no state's rights there.

by Tim on Feb 9, 2011 11:01 am • linkreport

Why not give each county or city its own share of the gas tax directly, and let them fund transportation improvements in their own areas or use that revenue in other ways as they see fit?

Because then you end up with a disparate mish-mash of roads and transit systems. One of the reasons why Metrorail works so well is that it was built as a *regional* system, from a master-plan, with the cooperation of all the various county, state, and city governments. When you think about it, Metro got a lot of things *right* in its design -- it's really is a best-of-both-worlds hybrid between a commuter rail and urban transit system. How many other far-flung suburban areas have fast rail service with 5-10 minute headways?

If it weren't for Metro, we'd have a mish-mash of unconnected light rail lines with varying schedules, payment systems, and trains (Take a look at the CCT for an example of this already happening in our region)

Similarly, having competing jurisdictions can result in a sort of "race to the bottom." Virginia shovels its poor onto Maryland and DC, and entices businesses to Tyson's with rock-bottom taxes until the area becomes too crowded to attract any more.

by andrew on Feb 9, 2011 11:06 am • linkreport

Allowing localities to govern themselves gives more power to cities, which the teabaggers loathe as a general rule. State governments, on the other hand, tend to be disproportionately ruled by rural and exurban interests, which is just how the teabaggers like it. That's why they have no problem at all with the Dillon rule.

by jimble on Feb 9, 2011 11:17 am • linkreport

That Tax Foundation report is pretty much useless for DC. It takes into account federal salaries. So all that money paid to MD and VA federal commuters counts as a "payment" that DC received. Including salaries is not fundamentally flawed, since a lot of pork is in the form of salaries, but when the vast majority of those salaries are going to out of state employees, it distorts the state's give-and-take ratio.

Brookings said that DC gets $2.7 billion in federal spending and we apparenty sent in $3.6 billion last year. That Tax Foundation report even says we're number one in terms of per capita federal taxes paid (beating wealthy Connecticut by a few thousand dollars a head). So calling us a "welfare" state is absurd and insulting at once.

by TM on Feb 9, 2011 11:18 am • linkreport

Brave stuff. Coming off a day when tea-party types sabotaged the Patriot act, timely for once.

However, some real barriers:

1. As Tim noted, it is state rights, not regional rights.

2. Republicans in general use rhetoric to attack programs they don't like, not to believe in the rhetoric.

3. Most the local funding problems are the result of out-of-control pensions, which tea-party types may not like.

I also see little evidence that tea-party types are interested in government as opposed to hearing themselves speak. Rather like if GGW commentators ran for office....and won.

by charlie on Feb 9, 2011 12:18 pm • linkreport

I am discovering my political philosophy, and while I agree a lot with modern libertarianism, I disagree with the idea of the state over the city. I really believe that the smallest division of government is the individual and that division should keep most of its power and funding. I think we should have a confederated central government, but that it should be constantly growing (admitting new member states) and it should pretty much only exist to defend its member states and to organize them so that diplomacy and warfare can be more straight forward. I think that each state should be free to have its own personal governmental flavor, but that in an ideal state, more power will go to smaller communities than even to cities, townships or counties. I think that true liberalism must necessarily come forth from grass roots activism and centralized aggressive authority and entrenched bureaucracy will almost always be unresponsive to the needs of the people and will almost always be less efficient than a grass roots effort. Personally I love the ideals of individual rights and property (including self-ownership), but I also love the ideals of collective action and protection of rights (especially those rights which are commonly owned like rights to access certain sectors of our society etc.). I do not believe in the libertarian ideal of privately owned roads or private arbitrators and private defense firms. I think that certain things, like our right to travel, our right to do business, our right to safety, our right to natural resources, etc, are commonly owned and should never be privatized. On the other hand, I also think taxation is theft and that government which governs best governs least or not at all.

by Joshua Roy on Feb 9, 2011 12:54 pm • linkreport

This is a great plan for Virginia and other states. But I wonder how workable (or desirable) it is for the District. We're in a unique situation where we not only are a home for the 600,000 people who live here, but also host the nation's capital. As we've learned with issues such as the bicycle lanes on Penn. Avenue and the wise prohibition on hanging wires in our streets, there is a federal interest which is very present in this city ... And following your guidance in the case of DC would take away the means from the Federal government of being able to enforce its interest. As you rightly recognize with regards to the National Mall and the National Park Service, there are many many areas (physical or not) within the District where the federal interest trumps the local interest. Those of us who've chosen to live in this federal enclave have chosen to live here specifically because of the spin off benefits that come from being in the nation's capital. While we deserve a right to send representatives to Congress, like all democratic (small D) people do, we ultimately benefit enormously from being the nation's capital ... and retaining at least some measure of federal control over areas of federal interst is in all our bests interests ... and intuitively counter to what you are proposing. Maybe you have ideas on how we can balance both ... without the often heard simplistic solution to shrink the federal interest to only the Mall. While sounding good on the surface, it's altogether impractical when you scratch the surface and discover such nicities such as embassies being able to locate anywhere in DC under federal rules, non-profits being exempt from property taxes under federal rules, Rock Creek and other parks being very much federal assets under federal rules, Agencies such as the new Homeland Security Complex at St. Elizabeths occupying large swaths of land outside the Mall area.

So, while your ideas are in my opinion on target for the states, how could we adapt them to work in the District without stomping on the federal intesest which first of all will never happen (there are some 300 million other Americans out there with an interest in seeing that not happen) and also unwise in that it is that very federal interest that makes Washington what it is ... and what brought most of us to Washington in the way of the benefits it engenders for us in what otherwise would be a very unimportant city with 'Northern charm and Souther efficiency' as JFK was quoted as saying.

by Lance on Feb 9, 2011 1:00 pm • linkreport

I wish we could step back from political philosophy and look at what's really on the table here.

There is a good chance the jurisdictions will kick in more money for WMATA, that Maryland will raise its gasoline tax, that zoning code rewrites will continue, etc. These are good policies that shouldn't be held up by bickering about philosophy. They have various levels of support from business, voters, and local politicians. I wish this site would focus a bit more on the specifics behind the proposals and what those of us with real jobs can do to guide them along. Tell me who to donate to!

by WRD on Feb 9, 2011 1:23 pm • linkreport

Thanks David. That was a quick turn around.

I am very skeptical about the seriousness of the Tea Party. However, their collaboration with the Dems in the House today working to stop certain terrible parts of the Patriot Act gives me hope.

Another place where I see a possible collaboration between the Tea Party and Urbanists is in opposing massive hand-outs to large developers. It is interesting to see that the Tea Party is pretty serious about protecting individuals from paying too many taxes, and cares less about big business than the Republican party does.

by Jasper on Feb 9, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

@jnb: There are plenty of churches, temples, and synagogues in new urbanism developments. Check out this article by Eric O. Jacobsen (you'll have to excuse the lack of paragraph breaks -- it seems to be text conversion error). Jacobsen is the author of the book Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith.

As for mosques in U.S. new urbanism developments, I am not sure about that. I'd be interested in knowing if any mosques have been planned as part of any new suburban developments of any type. My impression is that suburban mosques usually locate in existing, well-established suburbs rather than brand-new ones. However, there are new urbanism projects underway in the Middle East and South Asia, and mosques are integral features of many of those plans.

by Laurence Aurbach on Feb 9, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

State's rights vs. Regional rights shouldn't be an issue. If your ideology is worth anything, you shouldn't have to refer to a piece of paper on everything. That's why I don't understand why libertarians make exclusions for courts and military when it comes to what the federal gov't shouldn't do. If you're truly for an unadulterated republic, you should be in favor of allowing regions to keep what is theirs rather than what we have right now.

There's obviously the rural/urban divide when it comes to conservatism and the tea party which leads to social policy being injected into things. The Tea Party wasn't originally a GOP party on crack on social issues, but it has become that way with Bachmann and Palin leading the way. That's what scares away a lot of people from urban areas and the minority community from supporting them. There could be tea party urbanism. Tea-partiers would just have to understand that what works for some doesn't work for others. If localities feel the need for mass transit, they shouldn't be characterized in a negative way. Some fragmentation does start to come into the picture where regions and states have to work together or the federal gov't has certain interests that need to be acknowledged, like Andrew said above. This is why I don't bother getting too hardcore into any ideology that ends up breaking down when actually implemented(which is rare).

I think settling issues individually, piece by piece, is the way to go. If we have mature, reasonable and patient people to lead this sort of collaboration, than perhaps it would shed a different light on the tea-party and planning/transportation/smart-growth camps.

by Vik on Feb 9, 2011 2:19 pm • linkreport

Off topic, but I was back home this weekend, and the Mullettville Gazette has a "reader sound off" op-ed section and one teabagger wrote a piece about how the liberal media is giving Egypt too much attention while ignoring the "revolutionary" tea bag protests. I was appalled but not at all surprised.

by spookiness on Feb 9, 2011 3:00 pm • linkreport


Protecting the Federal interest, whatever that may be, is certainly possible within a state. Federal institutions exist in every state without unresolved legal conflicts of jurisdiction. If you include Federally-administered reservations, the Feds control 84% of Nevada, for instance.

This issue usually arises when Federal management of forests and natural resources leans more toward preservation than economic development. The local residents often demand that Federal rules for their neighboring lands accommodate local economic development objectives. At the same time, the Federal government and various conservation groups assert that there is a national interest in overriding local preferences.

The difference is that DC residents are denied participation in the process through the House and Senate whereas Nevadans, Alaskans, Californians, etc., are afforded two Senators and one or more Representatives.

These conflicts of jurisdictions are most certainly reconcilable in DC just as they are in the 50 states.

by Eric Fidler on Feb 9, 2011 4:01 pm • linkreport

It's amusing that there's actually so much I could agree with among the Tea Party, as I'm generally a small-government person... but at the same time I'd also count myself to have a decent dose of socialist & urbanist tendancies.

I see it that the more efficient & sustainably a government can run its infrastructure -- forming the back-bone with which other governance & private enterprise can utilise -- the more choices its denizens are provided with & the greater freedom they can enjoy.

...The amusing part is that in slicing that sentence in two: before the hyphens sounds like typical left-wing rhetoric and after the hypens sounds like typical right-wing rhetoric. :)

And while I generally prefer municipal or County-level governance, one has to recognise that the rural areas need the urban markets; and the urban markets need the rural suppliers... both require the infrastructure to transfer goods and services in between, and that's where the State continues to play an important role in redistributing the higher tax receipts of urban areas to finance the greater per capita infrastructure demands of the rural regions. Especially as transportation becomes faster and faster: the interaction between further-out rural reaches becomes even more integrated into the urban fabric of ever more distant cities.

by Bossi on Feb 9, 2011 5:18 pm • linkreport

@Eric Protecting the Federal interest, whatever that may be, is certainly possible within a state.

From your post, yes, I can tell that you really don't understand what the federal interest is and why it is unique to Washington.

The instances you cite in Nevada and elsewhere are all instances where the federal government has an interest only as a landowner ... not really very different from any other landowner in these states other than how these lands owned by the federal government can be used to meet specific public policy goals (e.g., mining on federal lands where it helps the country be self sustaining in regards to energy production.)

The federal government's interest in Washington is far different. Having been founded to be the US capital, the Federal interest in Washington is broad, intrinsic, and inseparable from almost anything that occurs in Washington. As the nation's capital, Washington is the country's face not only to the US States, but to the rest of the World. Hence the Congressionally mandated and produced McMillan Plan which is being used as the template for developing a world class city with monument, wide avenues, parks, wireless streets, etc. And as the seat of government, it serves to meet other unique governmental needs of the federal government which no other jurisdiction must deal with such as being the home to over 150 emabassies and providing Secret Service protection to these embassies scattered throughout it etc.

Washington was created as a federal enclave to serve a purpose. That need hasn't gone away. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be given our votes in Congress and have our say in national matters, but as long as we are the Capital the pervasiveness and inseparability of the federal interest so much that occurs in this city means that we will have a different relationship with the federal government than the states have by right. Remember, they created the federal government, and the federal government created us.

by Lance on Feb 9, 2011 5:35 pm • linkreport

I'm fine with a strong Federal Interest in the activities of the District, so long as that Federal Interest has some serious money behind it.

by Alex B. on Feb 9, 2011 5:41 pm • linkreport

@Alex B. That is a very good point. We hear everything from we're the beneficiary of a great largess to that we are subsidizing the federal government by letting them set up shop here tax free on 1/3 our land. There's no disputing that we have the federal government to thank for 'bring work' (and a reason for being) to these swampy Potomac headlands and for lots of great publicity and even guidance (e.g., the L'Enfant and McMillan plans), but is there really cash coming with all these things? There should be or there should be some 'adjustment' such as taking away our federal income tax obligation. And none of this should have any influence as to whether we have votes through the national stage (i.e., in Congress ... like we have for voting for President), our unique situation demands unique solutions. And from what I can tell, we're not the only capital that in practice gets treated different from the rest of the nation ... even in those states where you have a centralized government. The capital is always 'different'. And that can/should be a good thing.

by Lance on Feb 9, 2011 5:52 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.


As long as Congress maintains D.C.'s quasi-colonial status, they should be funding the city to hilt. I do think there's an inherent contradiction in the argument that the District is special as a federal enclave but in the same breath then vote to strip funds away from the special federal capital. Then again, Congress shuffling its responsibilities onto the District/states is nothing new... unfunded mandates for all!

by Adam L on Feb 9, 2011 5:57 pm • linkreport

Why does Alpert allow comments like "teabaggers" on here? Would he allow comments calling homosexuals perverts?

by Mike on Feb 9, 2011 10:11 pm • linkreport

Why does Alpert allow comments like "teabaggers" on here?

What on Earth do you mean? This was the original term the Teabaggers used to describe their movement:

Several Tea Party protest sites encourage readers to "Tea bag the fools in DC." Jay Nordlinger at National Review Online later admits: "Conservatives started [using the term]... but others ran and ran with it.

Is there some other term they prefer nowadays? Obviously we want to be as sensitive as possible.

by oboe on Feb 10, 2011 8:56 am • linkreport

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