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The Status of Cities under Recent Federal Legislation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 September 2013

J. Kerwin Williams
U. S. Conference of Mayors, Washington, D.C.


Final adjournment of the Seventy-fourth Congress, which like its immediate predecessors turned out a substantial grist of bills affecting cities, brought into focus once again the question of what is happening to our “sovereign states” and their political subdivisions. Federal contacts with cities are not, of course, an entirely new phenomenon in the United States. For a number of years prior to the depression, certain federal agencies had maintained informal contacts with municipal governments by offering them services, information, and advice, and such services are still being utilized. Until July, 1932, however, with the passage of the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, congressional statutes had never touched municipal governmental functions except indirectly through grants-in-aid to the states, the federal government had never entered into important contractual relations with cities, and Congress had never sat in legislative session to deal with the problems of cities as political units.

American Government and Politics
Copyright © American Political Science Association 1936

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1 Regional Factors in National Planning, a report of the National Resources Committee (Washington, D. C., December, 1935)Google Scholar. Also Fesler, James W., “Federal Administrative Regions”, in this Review, April, 1936Google Scholar.

2 Graves, W. Brooke, “The Future of the American States”, in this Review, February, 1936Google Scholar.

3 Recent Federal-City Relations, by Betters, Paul V., Williams, J. Kerwin, and Reeder, Sherwood L.. U. S. Conference of Mayors, Washington, D. C. 1936Google Scholar. Supplement published June, 1936.

4 Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932 (Pub. No. 302, 72nd Cong., July 21, 1932) providing for loans to states and political subdivisions for relief and for “self-liquidating” projects; Federal Municipal Debt Readjustment Act (Pub. No. 251, 73rd Cong., May 24, 1934, extended by the 74th Cong.); Home Owners' Loan Act (Pub. No. 43, 73rd Cong., June 13, 1933), with its section providing for payment of delinquent taxes by the federal corporation; “pink slip amendment” (Pub. No. 40, 74th Cong., April 19, 1935) giving local taxing officials a means of preventing tax evasions; protection of municipal deposits through FDIC (Pub. No. 65, 73rd Cong., June 16, 1933), amended and liberalized in 1934 and 1935; exemption of municipal securities from registration requirements of Securities Exchange Act and fostering of municipal bond market (Pub. No. 22, 73rd Cong., May 27, 1933), (Pub. No. 291, 73rd Cong., June 6,1934); exemption of publicly-owned power plants from electrical energy tax (Pub. No. 73, 73rd Cong., June 16, 1933); RFC loans to cities for flood rehabilitation (H. R. 11968, approved May 17, 1936); authorization of federal-local coöperation in flood control projects (H. R. 8455, approved June 19, 1936); et cetera.

5 NIRA, Title II (Pub. No. 67, 73rd Cong., June 16, 1933); Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 (Pub. Resol. 11, 74th Cong., April 8, 1935); particularly certain phases of those programs which have special reference to cities, i.e., low-cost housing projects, federal grants and/or loans for municipal power plants, and the “emergency” outright grants to states, of which a certain percentage was required to be spent for roads, streets, bridges, and grade-crossing-elimination within municipal corporate limits.

6 Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1933 (Pub. No. 15, 73rd Cong., May 12, 1933), with particular reference to the transient program which ended inter-city bickerings over the legal settlement of destitute persons; federal grants to support locally-run work-relief programs; the Federal Civil Works Administration which undertook numerous projects aiding city governments in codifying ordinances, assessing taxes, keeping records, repairing city buildings, etc.; the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation which distributed surplus commodities to supplement budgets of local relief clients; the Works Progress Administration (set up under Pub. Resol. 11, 74th Cong., Apr. 8, 1935); National Youth Administration; suburban resettlement housing projects on the outskirts of cities; etc.

7 Among other examples are Pub. No. 232, 73rd Cong., May 18, 1934; Pub. No. 233, 73rd Cong., May 18, 1934; Pub. No. 235, 73rd Cong., May 18, 1934; Pub. No. 246, 73rd Cong, May 22, 1934; Pub. No. 376, 73rd Cong., June 18, 1934; Pub. No. 474, 73rd Cong., June 26, 1934; and the Federal Communications Commission's allocation of new wave bands to permit inter-city communication of police news (1936).

8 For example, the Federal Power Commission's survey of electric rates in cities, authorized by Pub. Resol. 18, 73rd Cong, April 14,1934; Tennessee Valley Authority power contracts with municipalities (under TVA Act of 1933, 73rd Cong., May 18, 1933); exemption of cities from registration requirements of Public Utility Holding Company Act (Pub. No. 333, 74th Cong., Aug. 26, 1935).

9 Pub. No. 271, 74th Cong., April 14, 1935.

10 George-Deen Vocational Education Act, Pub. No. 673, 74th Cong., June8,1936.

11 Pub. No. 397, 73rd Cong., June 18, 1934. See article by the writer in Public Management for Feb., 1936, “New York City Establishes a ‘Free Port.’”

12 H. R. 10104, passed June 16, 1936.

13 Kansas Gas & Electric Company v. City of Independence, Kansas. U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit, August 20, 1935.

14 Arkansas Missouri Power Company v. City of Kennett, Missouri. U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit, August 15, 1935.

15 In only six states—Oklahoma, North Dakota, Massachusetts (in part), Ohio, Louisiana, and Georgia—was the Federal Emergency Relief Administrator obliged to exercise his powers under the act of 1933 to supplant state relief administrators with federal appointees.

16 By Executive Order No. 7034, dated May 6, 1935, issued under authority of Pub. Resol. 11, 74th Cong., April 8, 1935.

17 To assist states and localities in bearing this financial load and to foster better standards of care for the unemployables, Congress passed the Social Security Act of 1935.

18 NIRA, Title II, approved June 16, 1933; Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, Pub. Resol. 11, 74th Cong., April 8, 1935; Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1936, appearing as Title II of Pub. No. 739, 74th Cong., approved June 22, 1936.

19 Dissenting opinion in the case of C. L. Ashton, et al., petitioners, v. Cameron County Water Improvement District Number One, decided by the United States Supreme Court on May 25, 1936.

20 Loans made to cities for rural power-lines by the Rural Electrification Administration, while not strictly a part of the public works program, illustrate many of the same principles. For example, the REA is not permitted to lend to cities which lack the right to provide electric service beyond their corporate boundaries, and the Rural Electrification Administrator is obliged to obtain the consent of the appropriate state authority before making any loan to a city for the construction, operation, or enlargement of a generating plant. (Pub. No. 605, approved May 20, 1936.)

21 S. 3247, 74th Cong., passed June 19, 1936.

22 Proposed ’United States Housing Act of 1936,” introduced in the Senate on Apr. 3, 1936, by Sen. Robert Wagner of New York, passed the Senate in revised form but failed to come to a final vote in the lower house before adjournment. By title, it is an act “to provide assistance to states and political subdivisions thereof for the elimination of unsafe and unsanitary housing conditions, for the development of safe, decent, and sanitary dwellings for persons of low income …” etc.

23 Monthly Report of the FERA, June 1–30, 1935, p. 11Google Scholar, footnote.

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