Why Can’t a Congressman Be More Like a Mayor?

Oct. 8 (Bloomberg) -- I had a terrible stomachache yesterday. I blame House Speaker John Boehner.

Not that he would have personally inspected the shrimp I ate. But he did close down the Food and Drug Administration, which should have. Furloughs mean that about 90 percent of imported seafood, about half of all fruit and a fifth of all vegetables consumed in the U.S. won’t be inspected. Ditto when it comes to blocking shipments from companies with a bad history of producing tainted foods such as dietary supplements that might be contaminated with mad cow disease, seafood tainted by E. coli, filth (excrement) all around and candy laced with lead.

For the duration, we could stop eating the stuff we know requires vigilance, or Boehner could put aside his plan for self-preservation and try preserving my lower intestine and the larger body politic.

I’m not counting on him, or any national politician, to come through. I’m not despairing, however. There is still a class of politician that deserves our admiration: the country’s mayors, who actually run services as opposed to running their mouths (think Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul).

I ate the suspect shellfish in downtown New York in the shadow of the former World Trade Center, which has been rebuilt in less time than it takes Congress not to pass an unbalanced budget. I was in New York to attend the first CityLab conference -- convened by Bloomberg Philanthropies (the charitable foundation of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, principal owner of Bloomberg LP), the Aspen Institute and the Atlantic -- which is a Petri dish for what’s working and what’s not working in cities. It shows you that good government endures.

Ideological Extremes

What a wonderful world it would be if mayors ruled the world. They confirm the suspicion that the closer you are to having to actually do something, the less you can indulge in ideological extremes. One speaker described the governing philosophy of the current crop of mayors in the words of Mayor Teddy Kollek, who led Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993. Assailed from all sides about who was entitled to what land, he calmed the factions by telling them, “Spare me your sermons and I will fix your sewers.”

That spirit of pragmatism makes party affiliation secondary. With these mayors, you can’t tell whether you’re talking to a Republican or a Democrat, except for clues such as a pair of Earth shoes or a pocket protector. London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, calls himself an anarcho-Tory. I was sitting next to Jim Gray, the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, who identified himself as the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. metropolitan area before he allowed that he was a Democrat who’d won in the very red state represented in the U.S. Senate by Paul and Mitch McConnell.

At the dinner opening the conference, Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia said that, unlike lawmakers in the nation’s capital, he could never get away with closing his city’s harbors, hospitals and schools because extremists couldn’t get along.

But in Washington, we expect the Capitol Police -- who aren’t being paid -- to stop a threatening, unhinged woman, as they did last week. Maybe they’ll get paid later, maybe they won’t, but Boehner expects them to protect him anyway. By the way, the speaker is getting his paycheck.

Let’s try to imagine a local equivalent of the state of affairs in Washington. Picture Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans (who, not having to be in Washington, seems happier than his sister, Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who does have to be) saying to Bobby Jindal, his state’s Republican governor, to “give all your money to New Orleans or I am going to cut off your left arm with a dull buzz saw.”

Default Threat

Jindal would be perfectly justified in refusing to negotiate. President Barack Obama is, too, in holding the line against those who have shut down government over defunding a law passed by Congress and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court. At the same time, Obama has to resist talking to those holding the threat of a U.S. default over his head.

Landrieu’s would-be demand is every bit as unreasonable as Boehner’s. The difference is that Boehner has every incentive to be as unreasonable as possible because he’s being judged by the activist wing of his party on the basis of how little he gets along with Obama.

Landrieu and his governor have to get along to solve problems that affect them, including ensuring the electricity stays on at New Orleans hospitals in a hurricane, keeping schools open, and getting the garbage picked up, potholes filled and restaurants inspected. Landrieu can’t afford a one-armed governor who hates him, and Jindal needs his state’s marquee city to run smoothly.

Not having to deliver anything as visible as trash pickup is what saves Boehner from immediate consequences. When it turns out that the shutdown of a specific part of government makes Republicans look bad, Boehner rushes to try to open it: Let’s keep the money flowing to Yellowstone National Park, the National World War II Memorial, the cancer trials for children conducted by the National Institutes of Health and veterans’ benefits. Meanwhile, let’s cut off nutrition programs for pregnant women, Head Start and some FDA inspections. Democrats aren’t cooperating with his ad hoc governing.

Just this past summer, a strain of hepatitis A sickened almost 200 people in 10 states. The FDA traced the cause to a frozen berry mix sold at Costco. The fruit was recalled and lives were saved.

No matter how bad things get, the threshold in Washington is that “no one died.” In this crisis, I hope Boehner comes to his senses before a dicey piece of fish forces him to reconsider.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

To contact the writer of this article: Margaret Carlson at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at