Who should make local zoning decisions for a community, choosing what should be built, where, and who should pay for it: the residents of the neighborhoods that are affected and their local representatives or distant, unfamiliar, and unelected bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.? 

This is one of the questions that will be settled in the government spending bill that the House and Senate are scheduled to vote on next week. It is also one of the most important, and overlooked, policy questions of the Obama presidency – one that will have sweeping, long-lasting consequences for every community in America.

For now, the outcome is still up in the air. The text of the bill funding the government through next fiscal year – the “omnibus,” in Capitol Hill parlance – has not yet been released to the public or to members of Congress. But the choices facing the Republican leaders who are writing the legislation are clear: either they include a provision in the text of the omnibus that prohibits the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from implementing their imperiously named Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) Rule, or they don’t. 

Choosing not to restrict the implementation of the AFFH rule would be bad policy and bad politics. Allowing the AFFH to continue unabated would empower HUD regulators to carve up the country, block by block, reengineering the character of our communities according to their preferences and priorities. It could also make it more difficult for Republican leaders to garner the support they need to pass the omnibus, especially if 

By their very nature, omnibus bills must include compromises. They are extensive legislative instruments that authorize, in one fell swoop, the funding for every single program within the federal government’s vast jurisdiction. And they are often rushed through Congress, at the last minute before an urgent deadline, which leaves members of the House and Senate with few, if any, opportunities to amend the legislation.

But we should not compromise local control over zoning decisions and the distinctive, homegrown character of communities across the country. The diversity of America’s neighborhoods, and the right of every community to make its own zoning decisions, based on the preferences and priorities of its residents, is a treasure that we must preserve, not a bargaining chip to be used in backroom horse-trading. 

Should the authors of the omnibus fail to restrict funding for the implementation of HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, they ought to provide individual members of Congress the opportunity to enact such a prohibition through the amendment process. The fate of our communities and local self-government may well depend on it.