Steven Price: A government dispersed across multiple locales would solve many of the problems Americans have with a government bureaucracy out of touch with ordinary citizens
The rest of the country would secure enormous economic and cultural benefits that will come from bringing our government closer to the people it is supposed to represent, he says
Editor’s Note: Steven Price is chairman and CEO of Townsquare Media, Inc. and served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense from 2001-2004. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
By now Americans are all too familiar with the major themes dominating the 2016 election: the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots; the sense of alienation between government and those who are governed; rising terrorism and fear that we are no longer safe within our borders; economic stagnation and a growing consensus that a massive new stimulus will be required to shake the country’s employment lethargy.
Both campaigns seem to recognize the public’s concerns, but neither has put forward a solution that just might put America back on a path to solving these complex issues.
It’s time to move the federal government out of Washington.
In one bold move, it would bring the federal government closer to the people, reduce the threat a major act of terrorism would pose to our nation’s capital, and create new jobs and new infrastructure throughout the country. But, perhaps most importantly, it would renew faith that our government exists not to serve the wealthy or the connected, but all the people.
No, not the White House nor the Congress, but the rest of the federal government, namely the Cabinet departments and large agencies that have grown up around the Beltway, should move and disperse. There is really no compelling reason that federal agencies and departments remain in Washington, D.C., and many good reasons why they should be relocated across the United States over time.
The Department of Defense, for example, should move to Tampa, where it already has many key functions. The Treasury Department should go to Philadelphia, halfway between the financial capitals of New York and DC. Homeland Security should reside in the heartland of the homeland, either Chicago or Denver. The State Department belongs in NYC where most foreign governments already have a large presence. Commerce should move to San Francisco; HHS to LA. Interior should be in the interior, maybe Boise or Minneapolis.
A Veteran’s Administration in Phoenix would be closer to more of its constituents, as would an Agriculture Department in Des Moines or Cedar Rapids. Let’s go further – the EPA could go to Portland (either one) and the IRS to Dallas. And, this plan doesn’t need to be enacted all at once. The FBI currently is planning to spend billions on a new headquarters in the DC area, either Maryland or Virginia. Why not Atlanta or Boston?
A government dispersed across multiple locales would solve many of the problems Americans have with a government bureaucracy out of touch with ordinary citizens and too centralized for its own good. First, it would keep our government safe from a catastrophic single terrorist attack that, today, might render our government powerless to function.
A recent study in the American Economic Review predicted that there is a 34% likelihood of either a bioterror or a nuclear terror attack by 2025 and 76% likelihood by 2050. Clearly, Washington is a main target and such an attack could threaten our government’s ability to continue operations.
Executive Directive 51, created and signed by President George W. Bush in 2007, claims power to execute procedures for continuity of the federal government in the event of a “catastrophic emergency.” What better way than to spread out the bureaucracy across the country? In fact, doing so would make the federal government look like most large multinational corporations, with divisions in multiple locations. And, this project would help ensure continuity of operations and continuity of government.
Not only would a geographically distributed federal government be better insulated from terrorist attacks and natural catastrophes, but its work force would be much more representative of our nation’s people, regional differences, and cultures.
Unshackled from the confines of the Beltway, our work force would no longer be captive to the insularity of the elites traveling the eastern Acela corridor. Instead, federal employees would interact – in everyday settings, whether in churches, fairs, soccer fields or community meetings – with their constituents, rather than as often happens in Washington, only with themselves.
Relocating federal agencies’ headquarters and staffs across the 50 states would represent a massive infrastructure and stimulus undertaking that both conservatives and liberals could support. Economists will differ on its ultimate effect, but a program of this scale will surely create hundreds of thousands of new jobs from the buildings, roads and supporting structures that will have to be built to accommodate these new work forces.
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Dispersing our federal work force would require state-of-the-art secure systems to ensure seamless communication between and among these new headquarters. The need to develop a solution to this challenge would represent a positive opportunity to upgrade (finally) our national communication systems. One can easily envision a mini Manhattan project to develop badly needed cyber protections for defense, video conferencing, file sharing, virtual collaboration and more.
Skeptics will argue that such a plan would make our federal government less efficient and curtail face-to-face interaction. From lessons learned in the corporate world, our federal government would more likely become more efficient and less expensive under such a scenario. For example, we’d have a much larger pool of potential applicants for federal jobs since federal agencies and departments wouldn’t tussle over a single applicant pool in one city. And, periodic in-person meetings, if necessary, are still only a flight away.
Of course, a plan of this breadth and magnitude will take time and exquisite planning. Weaning hundreds of thousands of employees off the federal payroll too quickly or thoughtlessly could cause massive dislocation and anguish. But given the many years it would take to implement, it’s not unrealistic to expect many of them could be offered job opportunities and incentives to move to the department’s new location. And noted economist Paul Kupiec has written about numerous potential cost savings from such a move, in addition to other benefits.
While the Washington, D.C. area will surely experience slower growth under this plan, the rest of the country would secure enormous economic and cultural benefits that will come from bringing our government closer to the people it is supposed to represent. We will become more cohesive as a nation, more united in our purpose, safer and more prosperous.