Dropping the Hammer on CDBG

For quite a few years I used to go home to Georgia once a year to speak of the mysteries of Washington to a meeting of the Georgia Municipal Association. More often than not, after I spoke of high and low politics and the big picture of the annual budget fights, some mayor would ask: “How’s it looking for CDBG?”

For the uninitiated, the Community Development Block Grant is a mid-sized HUD program that represents about the closest thing local governments enjoy to flexible federal funds. CDBG money can be used for housing, economic development, wastewater treatment, public facilities, and a few other purposes; larger cities and counties get an allotment directly from HUD based on an approved project list; smaller jurisdictions compete for funding on a specific project basis via the states. It’s a really big deal for cash-strapped local governments.

So I thought of those Georgia mayors when I read this report today from Politico‘s David Rogers (an example, BTW, of the kind of stuff you can’t much find anywhere other than in Politico among general-purpose news outlets):

Forget Ronald Reagan and the Bushes. House Republicans are taking Community Development Block Grants back to the 70s and Gerald Ford.

That’s the bottom line to a $44.1 billion transportation and housing bill rolled out Tuesday which would cut $1.3 billion from the popular CDBG program created with Ford’s help in 1974.

Indeed, between sequestration and the GOP’s appetite for defense spending, President Barack Obama can’t even get what Ford, a Republican, got nearly 40 years ago. Obama requested $2.79 billion for CDBG in the coming 2014 fiscal year. Ford won an almost identical sum, $2.7 billion, in September 1975 according to old appropriations reports reviewed by POLITICO. The Republican-backed bill Tuesday provides $1.6 billion.

Just one piece in a larger budget puzzle, CDGB’s fall is the most striking example yet of what’s become a genuinely historic rollback of domestic discretionary spending.

Nice work by Rogers, who gives us some historical context (like many targeted-by-conservative domestic programs, CDBG began life as a bit of a Republican pet), a taste of the broader budgetary picture, and a sense of which way the wind is blowing. All I’d add is that there are countless other items in that massive category of “domestic discretionary spending–the true red-headed stepchild of federal government at the moment–that mean a great deal to a lot of people. Some are well-run programs, some not so much. But the hammer’s coming down on all of them, and about all those affected can do is watch.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.