Carter administration officials and politicians from the Northeast and Midwest yesterday sharply attacked a report by a presidential commission that urges the country to accept the inevitable decline of many older cities and recommends federal programs to aid in the ongoing population migration to the Sun Belt.
The report, prepared by the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties, will not be presented formally to President Carter for several weeks, but the draft section on urban policy already has created a storm of protest, with some officials calling on Carter to disavow his commission.
Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier, a member of an advisory panel to the commission, took issue with the urban policy recommendations earlier this month and urged substantial changes. "Should the changes which I recommend in this letter not be contained in your final report, you may consider this letter as my formal resignation from the advisory committee," he said.
HUD Assistant Secretary Robert Embry and his deputy, Marshall Kaplan, wrote an angry letter to the commission's executive director, Claude Barfield, arguing that the report "contains many regrettable inaccuracies and several misleading statements." The two have made their disagreements known to the White House.
"Our fundamental complaint is that there is no rationale for the recommendations and that its recommendations would be harmful to urban areas and poor people," Kaplan said yesterday, adding that the report also misrepresents the urban policies of the Carter administration.
Rep. Robert W. Edgar (D-Pa.), head of the Northwest-Midwest coalition in the House, said the urban policy section "is not only irresponsible but will force us to simply reject one region of the country as hopeless.I think it's silly thinking."
Edgar is urging Carter to reject the report, and has asked other members of the House, including Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), to join him. White House officials are reviewing both the draft report and the critique from Embry and Kaplan, with Edgar's proposal in mind.
"We haven't decided what to recommend to the president, but it won't be to embrace the report," one White House official said yesterday. "The report is obviously misguided, and fundamentally misunderstands what this president has done the last four years."
Lee Jones, executive director to Gary, Ind., Mayor Richard Hatcher, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said the "whole tenor of the report is benign neglect, and it is the mayor's opinion that benign neglect was not acceptable when applied to black people [by the Nixon administration] and it won't be acceptable when applied to the cities of the Northeast and Midwest."
The commission was created in the summer of 1979, shortly after the July speech in which Carter said the country suffered from a malaise. It was the brainchild of Hedley Donovan, retired editor-in-chief of Time Inc., and a former adviser to Carter. The commission was chaired by Dr. William McGill, retired president of Columbia University.
The full product of the commission's labors will be a summary report and nine panel reports. It is the draft panel report on urban policy that is under attack.
The urban policy draft says that "growth and decline are integral parts of the same dynamic process in urban life," and urges the federal government not to attempt to reverse the process.
"There is a fundamental problem in attempting to halt the shrinkage of metropolitan areas," the report said, urging that government resources be used "in planning for the future and helping people to adjust" to those changes.
Among specific recommendations are retaining and relocation assistance. Recognizing "traumatic consequences" for the declining cities if the changes occurred overnight, the commission report recommends programs to cushion the effects of a declining tax base and loss of population.
"The report dismisses the role the federal government has played in development of the Sun Belt over the last several decades," said Tom Cochran, director of the Northeast-Midwest Institute. "A whole set of policies were designed to develop the Sun Belt. The few things the Carter administration was able to accomplish have only begun to bring the federal role back into balance."
The commission had had no official response, but a staff member, who asked not to be identified, yesterday called the urban policy section "the most original and most controversial" part of the commission's work.
He said it was much more balanced than its critics contend, and said the urban section was "exhaustively debated and discussed. This was not done in a fit of absent-mindedness. Nor is it a recommendation to abandon the cities and abandon the people in them."
He said critics failed to look at the urban proposals as part of the overall report, which includes such recommendations as a negative income tax to replace current welfare programs and federal assumption of welfare costs to relieve the burden of many big cities.
"The report is more pro-people than pro-place," he said. "And there should be aid to cities that are declining. But it's fair to say that we are skeptical that the federal government can turn around the decline."
He also said the overall tone of the report is not anti-government. "At a conservative time, we are recommending a national health insurance program and welfare reform," he said. The health program calls for a system of vouchers that would let the public choose its own program, rather than a government-controlled system. He said the report also calls for a substantial federal role in protecting the environment and the workplace and in assuring civil rights.