What If We Decentralized the Federal Government?

Lindsey Mattila (CMC ’17)

Many Americans think that the federal government is too out of touch with the general public. These Americans often think this is because the government is centralized in one of the most, if not the most, affluent area in the country. Electing outsider politicians, such as President Trump, may be a short-fix solution to the problem of Washington, D.C. being full of too many political elites. However, the United States may need to start considering more drastic measures than electing outsiders to move towards a robust representative democracy for the entire country. While this article’s proposed solution is a bit too far-fetched to be seriously considered, the hope is that a discussion of the underlying problem will be sparked, and better options will be presented.

Throughout his campaign, President Trump often referenced draining the swamp, and what better way to truly do this than taking the swamp out of Washington? This reform seems so drastic and impossible that it is nearly irrelevant, but consider the positive effects of physically moving bureaucratic agencies and cabinet teams out of Washington, D.C.

First, relocating certain departments out of Washington could have little effect on day-to-day work. Considering that modern technology enables most communication to be be done remotely, this could have only a small drawback of making larger conferences and more important meetings slightly more difficult since they would now require a flight.

Second, the government is a very stable employer, and with that brings slow, but steady economic growth. For example, consider if the EPA moved to Montana, or if the Department of Agriculture moved to Ohio or Kentucky. The government could revitalize parts of the country that have still not recovered from the Great Recession, and are likely not to recover with the destruction of industries such as auto-manufacturing. Additionally, by moving to areas where cost of living is lower, the government could ideally do its job with less money. Though realistically, the cost of acquiring new buildings, training new employees, and relocating current staff could cut into the potential profit, it may still be a net gain for the government.

Third, physically decentralizing the government could give lobbyists less incentive to stay in Washington. Since lobbyists are some of the highest paid residents of Washington, D.C., this could also eliminate some of the insularity that lobbyists have created in the nation’s capital. Lastly, some assert that natural disasters are reason enough to want to break up the government. With an increase in natural disasters and high probability of nuclear attack by 2050, the country’s fate could be safer with a government dispersed in multiple locations.

There are a few counter arguments to this plan: first, Washington, D.C. surprisingly only houses 15 percent of federal government jobs. This suggests that the problem may not be the sheer number of jobs in Washington creating this insularity, but, rather, the number of powerful jobs. As such, moving bureaucratic agencies would have little to no effect, other than that it could possibly revitalize other parts of the country that have been left behind after the recession. Second, there is the argument that the potential unintended consequences could be far worse than the current situation. For example, perhaps the potential chaos this plan would cause, such as intercepted communication, would be worse than the centralization of power that is making Americans distrustful of Washington and its institutions. Furthermore, some argue that the Founders laid the foundation of Washington in a certain way and for certain reasons, and if it has withheld the test of time for this long, it clearly proves that their plan works.

While this proposal seems very unlikely for political reasons, as mentioned before, the majority of government jobs have left Washington at an incremental rate so as to be almost unnoticeable by the public. Therefore, this proposed plan could be implemented at the same rate to make it more feasible. Or, perhaps certain aspects of the plan could be implemented to create smaller reforms to decentralized power. Regardless, moving government jobs out of Washington, D.C. poses an interesting idea that perhaps to fix the current political climate, Americans will need to think outside-of-the-box and reconceptualize the federal government.

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