The proposal by former IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson, to disperse many components of federal Washington throughout the country, seems very likely to gain no traction whatsoever. Inertia and tradition are powerful forces. But as a thought experiment, if nothing else, it is a fascinating idea.
Everson argues that lower costs of living elsewhere, and the wide dispersal of educated workforces throughout the country, make decentralizing the federal bureaucracy viable. He proposes that the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs--which are operational rather than policy-setting bodies--are particularly ripe for relocation. (I'm not sure how non-political Homeland Security really is, but that's another discussion.) As evidence of the viability of this idea, he cites the viable Atlanta location of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I support Everson's proposal, although for different reasons than he cites. During every campaign cycle, an easy applause line is to rail against "out of touch politicians in Washington DC." Another bit of red meat is to take on those conniving people who squirm away "inside the Beltway." If parts of Washington are spread throughout the land, these meaningless attacks would be harder to sustain. Everson is not proposing moving Congress itself (which I would not support). But moving much of the rest of Washington would definitely reduce the potency of these barbs.
The root problem is that the county was much smaller than it is now when it began, and nobody lived that far from Washington. But tonight I'm writing this blog post from 3,000 miles away, in a place that has little real connection to the capital. Dispersal of the people who make up the government (although Everson isn't recommending the Bay Area, as it's even more pricy than Washington) would remedy this problem.
Why do I care about all this? Because in the two years we lived in Washington DC, I realized how much it gets an unfair rap. At the National Library of Medicine, I worked with very dedicated civil servants; they weren't faceless, lazy bureaucrats. And all throughout town, people cared about issues of the day and debated them passionately.
Washington isn't Shangri-la; many residents of the District are poor and disadvantaged. (I used to volunteer for the Washington Literacy Council.) And it's still true that residents of the District have no real voice in Congress--just a non-voting delegate in the House and nobody in the Senate.
These are longstanding and thorny concerns. But for now, the point is simple: Washington has a lot to offer, and the federal apparatus is easy to knock because it feels very distant from most people. Everson's proposal--quixotic though it may be--would narrow this gap.