The next U.S. President will reshape planning, but not in the way you might think.
Gridlock on Capitol Hill shows few prospects of breaking even following the election. The likely scenario of narrowed majorities in the House and Senate — regardless of who controls the majority — means that regulatory and executive agency actions are a more likely path to policy change than landmark legislation.
There are, I think, good reasons to be hopeful of legislative action in some areas, particularly infrastructure. However, in the main, the more likely path for implementing the agenda of a new administration will run through rules, guidance, and the various agencies.
It is a path well worn by the experience of the Obama administration and likely to continue.
In fact, it is many of the rules set in motion by the Obama administration that makes it all but certain that a new President will leave a mark on the practice of planning. The last year of the Obama administration has seen action on a wide array of new rules with important implications for cities, communities, and planners. Additionally, many of urban and planning policy innovations of the Obama years exist more in administration action and budgets than in statute, such as TIGER grants, Promise Zones, and Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2).
Here's a look at some of the items awaiting implementation from the next President:
One of the most significant changes for planners from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in many years was the release of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule (AFFH). The rule changes requirements for consolidated plans and strongly encourages more regional housing planning. Further, it affects most communities because any place receiving Community Development Blog Grant (CDBG) funds must comply.
AFFH is a final rule, so a new administration can't simply sweep it away. But a new President and HUD Secretary will leave a major mark on the rule. Implementation has only just begun. Most communities won't begin doing the required analysis until well into the next administration. Plus, the rule provides for an expanded role for HUD oversight and engagement in the planning process. So, not only are many implementation details still to be understood and addressed but also the nature of HUD's oversight and involvement is yet to be developed.
Building on the ideas underpinning the interagency partnership for sustainable communities, HUD has announced forthcoming guidance on integration of HUD-required plans with planning mandated by the U.S. Economic Development administration. This guidance will presumably be issued before the end of the current administration but its future would be left to new appointees.
At least as important as formal regulations are program funding streams and local assistance initiatives created during the Obama years without formal congressional approval.
Obama officials have put much effort into creating a suite of “place based” programs. No doubt they are working hard to ensure the continuation of these initiatives, but new leadership will have obviously sway over whether and how such programs continue. Certainly congressional oversight and annual appropriations will determine their fate, but new leadership at HUD and in the White House will fundamentally, perhaps existentially, affect programs from Choice Neighborhoods to SC2.
One of the biggest regulatory question marks in federal transportation policy is the future oversight of autonomous vehicles. While work in the arena has begun, it is all but certain that the next administration will determine the specific contours of the rules and safety regime that guide the coming roll-out of this new and potentially transformative technology.
In a similar vein, a new team at U.S. DOT will shape how the federal government supports future “smart cities” technology and initiatives.
DOT is still moving through comprehensive implementation of the most recent federal surface transportation legislation. For planners, some of those regulatory uncertainties bear close watching. DOT has yet to finalize its controversial planning performance measure rule for congestion. The draft rule for public comment was much lauded in some quarters for including climate change considerations for the first time in transportation plans but also much panned for its narrow, auto-centric approach to measuring congestion.
Similarly, the Obama DOT's efforts to force coordination and consolidation of Metropolitan Planning Organizations proved highly contentious. The debate was sufficiently vigorous that DOT extended the period for comments. Given the looming election, it's not likely that DOT will issue final rules for either issue. Even if such rules were slipped in before the inauguration, implementation and oversight would fall entirely to a new team of political appointees at DOT.
As with some HUD programs, the popular TIGER grant program at DOT exists without a formal congressional authorization. The program's popularity across the aisle likely ensures that it will continue to feature in annual appropriations. However, the current approach gives DOT considerable latitude in deciding on grants and program criteria. While new funding looks likely, the project allocation of that funding will be shaped largely by the decisions of the new President.
With the possible exception of Obamacare, no area of Obama-era domestic policy has proven more challenging and controversial than climate, energy, and environmental policy. Two major environmental rules with significant planning impacts — one on carbon emissions and one on legal authority over wetlands development — have been finalized but are tied up in pending litigation.
For the Clean Power and Waters of the United States rules, a new team in the White House won't mean an immediate change because the rules are on the books. That said, a new administration could delay or even effectively derail implementation. There's also the possibility of an impact on the continuing legal action. Even with favorable court rulings, a new President will shape the reality of how these rules are applied and enforced.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is an area of policy so contentious that major legislative change or reform in any direction would be incredibly difficult. But, the Obama administration has pushed the use of executive authority to craft changes to NEPA. In particular, the current White House has tried to incorporate issues of climate change and resilience more fully into environmental reviews. At the same time, a succession of transportation laws has tweaked NEPA standards and processes.
These challenges to NEPA's future in light of both climate concerns and desires to speed infrastructure projects will continue. New executive branch leadership will be pivotal in determining the regulatory future of this landmark environmental legislation and its relevance in combating climate change.
Beyond NEPA considerations, how and whether the U.S. complies with new international climate obligations is also an issue on deck for the new President.
Hazard resilience is another environmental regulatory challenge looming in 2017. The Obama administration made moves to expand the consideration of resilience in some federal funding. A notable example was the shift of a portion of Hurricane Sandy recovery funds into a national resilience competition. Will a new administration continue this focus and perhaps even push for new standards that apply to wide range of federal infrastructure and community development programs?
No President regulates with an unfettered hand, and congressional oversight will be strong. But the winner of this year's presidential election will come to Washington with a major opportunity to shape planning and development decisions in communities across the country.
The Obama years have provided a blueprint for moving an agenda in an era of congressional deadlock. The new Commander-in-Chief will likely follow.
Election Day and Beyond
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Top image: White House in Washington, D.C. Pixabay photo in the public domain.
About the Author
Jason Jordan is APA's director of policy.