One Way to Trim Down the Federal Government

It is an idea whose time has come.

Every sector of the bloated federal bureaucracy comes with a constituency of employees, individual beneficiaries of its largesse, and special interests whose economic or political interests are served by the department. What this means is that every time we try to prune down these ever-creeping organisms, we face intense and entrenched opposition.

Yet there might be one way to check the growth of government that could earn widespread and bipartisan support: disperse sectors of the federal government throughout the country. Matt Yglesias recently made this argument over at Vox.

Let’s issue a couple of obvious qualifications. First, there is logic in keeping much of our federal government in an independent city like Washington D.C. Since D.C. is not a state with federal representation, it cannot continually vote to further strengthening the federal hand. Second, there are clearly certain agencies and functions that must stay put. We are not going to move any of the three branches of our federal government, nor should we move agencies—like the Department of Treasury—that need direct and unfettered access to the White House. Some of this access can be maintained through modern technology, but not all of it (especially with our inability to deal effectively with cyberwarfare).

Why not just embrace the status quo? Why move any federal agency or function away from the heart of American political power?

The primary argument employed by Yglesias is a pragmatic one: Both the employees of these agencies and the populations surrounding the new sites would stand to benefit. The federal employees would enjoy a better commute, a lower cost of living, etc. The surrounding populations would have a larger tax base and would attract new businesses to both work with and serve the employees of the relocated agencies. Both are valid points.

At the same time, we should be a bit wary of using government growth—or even relocation—as a means of economic growth. As a whole, the federal government only grows when it takes more taxpayer money and employs it less efficiently than it would otherwise be employed. Successful economies require constant adaptation and new growth that will prove competitive. These features never flourish within a government-centered economy.

That said, there are more compelling reasons for the geographical dispersion of federal power. First, it moves power closer to the people. Right now, the vast majority of our federal government resides in one of the most wealthy, isolated, and culturally elitist areas of the country. The economic recession a few years back was barely a blip on the radar of metropolitan suburbs like Montgomery County, Maryland, and Loudoun County, Virginia. Most of the country feels disempowered relative to Washington, D.C.—and the federal levers of power are grossly out of touch with much of America. If we put the National Institute of Standards and Technology in a place like Sandusky, Ohio, it might help mend this tattered arrangement.

Will this geographical dispersion really help mitigate the present elitism—or would it simply disperse the elitism, as well? While it is still possible to be an elitist outside of the D.C. bubble, it will prove to be much more difficult for one primary reason: heterogeneity. Elitism feeds off of a homogeneous culture, where one’s self-appraisal is constantly reinforced by a chorus of like-minded people. Placed in a new—and perhaps, alien, culture—one has to learn to better understand and relate to others on a daily basis.

Second, a number of federal agencies are already moving out of D.C. into the nearby suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. This defeats the purpose of keeping of keeping our seat of federal power in an independent, unrepresented city. Both Marylanders and Virginians now have additional incentive to make the federal government metastasize. In turn, there is greater incentive for politicians and bureaucrats to bestow favors upon these two states. If we move isolated agencies throughout the country, this will prevent the disproportionate favoring of certain states.

Third, and similar to the second point, this broad dispersal of agencies and power would also make it much easier to trim down the federal government. Individual agencies will be more exposed to the light of day and will not be able to hide the federal morass in D.C. Pork-barrel spending has come under increased scrutiny and attack—particularly within the GOP. One state’s advocacy of an agency can be easily countered by other states and their representatives.

Yglesias provided a list of some agencies that could be moved (including the ones that have already moved into the suburbs outside D.C) and the criterion that should be employed in moving others. His reasoning certainly seems sound, but, we should not engage in pie-in-the-sky thinking. Such a move may be helpful in moving the needle a bit, but it will not dramatically alter our runaway spending and federal usurpation of power. Short of directly challenging the size of our federal government as a matter of fiscal sanity and constitutional responsibility, this would, at least, provide a start in that direction.

It is an idea whose time has come.