All politics should not be local
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.
When a meeting of the local board of aldermen in the North Carolina town of Carrboro is considered newsworthy to the South African Sunday Times, something is bound to be out of kilter.
Like 162 other municipalities nationwide, Carrboro passed a resolution earlier this year condemning the US invasion of Iraq. But the small town of 17,240 residents then went a step further, passing a second resolution that expressed solidarity with France and that nation's antiwar stance - an action that made the international news briefs of papers from Ottawa to Paris.
The same town officials - so at ease finessing foreign policy - oddly failed to comment at a subsequent meeting on the construction of a new local high school to ease classroom overcrowding. Now, two months later, debate lingers around town on whether local government should address topics over which it has no direct authority.
And it's an issue hardly limited to Carr- boro. Across the nation, local governments have shown a disturbing propensity to address a wide array of federal issues. An Internet search reveals that over the past year, municipalities passed:
• 96 resolutions opposing the USA Patriot Act (and more than two dozen against the proposed Patriot Act II);
• 13 resolutions encouraging an end to the US trade embargo with Cuba;
• 26 resolutions in favor of the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act;
• 6 resolutions calling for federal oversight of genetically engineered food.
Many more such resolutions were debated, but failed to pass, among them marijuana legalization, third-world poverty, and elimination of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Proponents consider these symbolic local gestures to be in keeping with the finest traditions of representative democracy. However, rather than promoting grass-roots political discourse, the foray of local government into federal law actually undercuts the very structure of our democratic processes.
At the heart of the American republic form of governance is the historical notion that some issues are most appropriately addressed at the federal level, while others should be reserved exclusively for the local. Dust off an old copy of the Federalist Papers to see more clearly why the Founding Fathers wisely thought this was a bright idea.
Voters fully expect and demand both the Congress and president to voice well-informed opinions on federal-level matters. It's part of their constitutionally defined jobs to hold both the purse strings and the authorization for national and foreign policies.
Voters generally do not, however, expect the same level of fervor from local officials who aren't Washington insiders and have no direct authority over national matters. Local officials are elected because of their competency to manage local concerns, not because of their personal beliefs on national and international affairs. At election time, no one ever asks a local candidate, "By the way, what's your view on the Patriot Act?" No, voters want to know their positions on property taxes, education, and local economic development - the whole point of local government. As a result, many municipal proclamations reflective more of the personal opinions of individual local bureaucrats than the communities they govern.
When the scope of local government broadens to include matters unrelated to regional public policy, both taxpayer attention and dollars are inappropriately diverted. All governmental activity, no matter how mundane, utilizes taxpayer resources. In an era of tight budgets exacerbated by stagnant revenue sources and a sluggish economy; it seems ill advised for municipalities to waste precious funds addressing matters outside their jurisdictions.
Besides, just what do local governments hope to accomplish by dipping their toes into national politics? Opinionated resolutions have no legal bite - consequently, federal officials pay them little attention. Rest assured, the president is unlikely to be swayed by a token resolution from a small town like Carr- boro - which, in passing its antiwar resolution genuinely debated whether French fries were truly French.
It did get the attention of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," which came down and did a piece on the "Paris of the Piedmont" - and you know they never present a bureaucrat as intelligent. The town - which is actually a well-educated, liberal-leaning community - came off looking rather ignorant and the whole resolution episode proved to be an embarrassment.
Let's face reality. At best, these resolutions are a way for activists to gain exposure and increase public awareness about an issue. At worst, local politicians make themselves and the communities they represent appear naive while ignoring important local business.
Hijacking local-government meetings for the debate of federal policy accomplishes painfully little and costs plenty. Municipalities should keep the "local" in local government and leave national policy up to the appropriate duly elected federal officials.
• Beth Waldron is a public policy analyst and writer.