NEW HAVEN – Sixty years ago, breaking up the federal government was all the rage.
Experts advised that no new government offices be established in Washington. In October 1953, prominent architect Waldron Faulkner went further, proposing that most existing agencies leave town, too. He advocated, in the words of one historian, “preserving the heart of the capital as ‘a cultural center’ of libraries and museums.”
These advocates for what became known as dispersal weren’t trying to make the government smaller or smarter or simpler. They weren’t proposing a shift in authority to the local level. They were worried about continuity of essential services in case of nuclear attack — so worried that planners argued against placing any important structures in major cities.
Looking back from the perspective of our own dreary era, I think all these experts might have been on to something, if not for the reasons they supposed. Removing much of the bureaucracy from the nation’s capital might well lead to better government.
A few months ago, I sat down with a group of county-government officials to discuss the woeful state of our politics. Like most thinking people, they were of the view that civility in public debate is depressingly low. But they also saw a bright side. At the local level, they said, although there are certainly problems, they are nothing like what we see in Washington.
When I asked what accounted for the difference, most participants gave versions of the same answer: In local politics, people know each other. They meant this literally. Mr. Red and Ms. Blue might be bitter opponents on the zoning board or city council, but they run into each other weekly in the grocery store. Their children might attend the same school or play on the same sports team. The tiny details of everyday life create a commonality.
My hosts saw another advantage, too: Not only do local officials know each other, but they also can’t avoid voters. They are constantly running into them. Government, therefore, seems more touchable to those whom it affects. Although many of those present shared stories about particularly unpleasant encounters with particularly unhappy constituents, the overall sentiment was that this occasional cost was worth the benefit of living among the citizens they are supposed to serve.
This seems to me an enormous advantage of local government. Imagine, to take a single example, if the health care law had been drafted and designed by people who lived far from Washington — people who every day encountered not lobbyists and bureaucrats with gold-plated health care plans, but neighbors whose insurance would actually be affected by the law.
There are other advantages. Were federal agencies successfully dispersed, lobbying and other inside sports would prove a great deal more expensive and might therefore actually decline.
We would surely realize considerable gain from breaking up the echo chamber that is a predictable outgrowth of Washington’s status as a company town. At the same time, cynical citizens might gain renewed respect for hard-working regulators if they lived next door.
I have in mind not establishing additional regional offices or holding more hearings in the hinterland. I am suggesting that we disperse the headquarters of the agencies themselves — just as was suggested in the Cold War.
We could send the Commerce Department, say, to Nashville, Tennessee, the Education Department to Portland (Oregon or Maine — either one), and, if we’re feeling especially mischievous, Health and Human Services to Kathleen Sebelius’ home state of Kansas. The Supreme Court could sit in Boise, Idaho; the Environmental Protection Agency might be better off in Albuquerque, New Mexico; the Federal Trade Commission could find itself a nice home in St. Louis (and the National Security Agency in Silicon Valley, where it would be among friends).
If we’re feeling particularly bold, we might perhaps even move the House and the Senate to small towns, testing the mettle of members and staffers alike: Is it public service that draws them or the salubrious pleasures of Washington itself?
Now, of course, one might offer objections. If the House and the Senate move, how will Congress negotiate with the president — or each chamber with the other? But, come to think of it, they don’t do much of that anyway these days, so we’d merely be formalizing what is already true.
As for the agencies, if we remove them from Washington, would they lose close touch with the White House? Possibly — but news reports tell us that many of them already have. And distance from Washington might actually help: Returning a degree of autonomy to the Cabinet departments might not be a bad thing.
In any event, with today’s communication technologies, there is no earthly reason that all the major agencies have to be within a short drive of each other. Officials could video conference by day and return to their lives far from the capital by night.
I know this would be difficult to pull off. During the Cold War, as historian Jennifer S. Light reminds us, despite an entire industry of experts and government officials engaged for a good 15 years in planning it, very little dispersal actually occurred. True, in early 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to relocate the Federal Civil Defense Administration to Battle Creek, Michigan. But, fears of nuclear attack notwithstanding, little else occurred. Congress, in its wisdom, adopted a series of riders prohibiting the use of appropriated funds to move any federal agency out of the District of Columbia.
Nowadays, every agency is thick with employees. Even if we could move large chunks of them — hardship, yes, but private corporations manage! — we’d need to find, or build, adequate space. Still, the feds could go smaller. The sheer scale of many official buildings in Washington is a holdover from an era when a relatively weak central government found it necessary to impress visiting potentates, whether from foreign powers or Northeastern banks. The idea that offices should be intimidating survived well into the 20th century, and it was responsible for such inelegant monstrosities as the old Labor Department building at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, now occupied by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Surely we’re past the point when the federal government required these monuments to its own magnificence. Public servants who labor on our behalf might provide a valuable symbol were they to learn to function in less sumptuous quarters. They might take their cue from the frugality of Pope Francis or, for that matter, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s modest corporate headquarters, where “the furniture is often a mismatched hodgepodge of colors and styles.” Come to think of it, Bentonville, Arkansas, population 38,000 friendly people, wouldn’t be a bad home for a federal agency. How about the Internal Revenue Service?
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.”
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