One of the most common complaints about the federal government has always been that Washington D.C. is out of touch with the average American. It’s why President Trump’s call to “drain the swamp” has resonated with so many people.
Now, a bold new plan to put tens of thousands of federal workers in closer touch with the people they serve has been proposed by the secretary of the U.S. department that actually manages swampland: the Interior Department.
On January 10, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed the largest reorganization in the department’s 168-year history. He plans to move tens of thousands of workers to new locations throughout the country and change how the federal government manages more than 500 million acres of land and water across the United States.
In an effort to improve the access that citizens have to government officials, especially in the West, Zinke would divide the U.S. into 13 regions and move bureau headquarters into the heart of each.
According to the Washington Post, Zinke brought 150 Senior Executive Service staffers to Washington to explain the proposal, get their input and split them into working groups that discussed ways to streamline the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, and other key agencies.
Alternative cities outside Washington like Denver and Albuquerque have been identified as places where thousands of employees could live with suitable schools and homes they can afford. That has helped attract bi-partisan support for the proposal as Colorado's Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, has joined U.S. Senator Corey Gardner’s (R-Colorado) campaign to push the plan forward.
The movement to decentralize the federal government as Zinke proposes is the subject of a new book by David Fontana, a professor at George Washington University Law School. He recently told the Los Angeles Times that "When you have this concentration of important people all in a single place, they form their own tight networks immune to other influences.” He pointed out that, “Decentralizing that power away from the capital has long been a trend in other countries. This is not a crazy idea."
It was an intriguing enough idea that last year former Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced a House resolution stating that departments of the federal government should not be required to have their offices in D.C. The resolution was approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee which was chaired by Chaffetz at the time.
His resolution states, in part, that, “Whereas the impact of regulations can be perceived more easily by those individuals who are proximate to the affected industries…the House of Representatives…recognizes that it is no longer necessary for all Federal agencies to be located in the District of Columbia.” It also calls on the head of each executive agency and military department to recommend appropriate alternate locations throughout the United States to which their respective agency or military department can be relocated.
Chaffetz, who retired from Congress last June, told the Washington Business Journal that, “Government needs to be closer to the people it regulates. As it stands, decision-makers at various agencies are largely shielded from the impact of their decisions. Housing federal agencies in a city with one of the highest median incomes in the United States is not only expensive, but keeps federal bureaucrats in an economic and political bubble that offers a distorted view of the realities facing this country."
Zinke’s proposal, and this fledgling movement in general, will certainly meet with strong resistance from many in the Washington establishment. However, restoring power to the people by actually bringing government policy makers closer to the people is an idea whose time has come.
Bob Dorigo Jones is senior fellow at the Center for America, creator of the annual Wacky Warning Labels™ Contest, and the bestselling author of "Remove Child Before Folding: The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever." His weekly radio commentary, "Let’s Be Fair!" airs on radio stations across the U.S. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.
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