Decentralizing D.C: Where Each Federal Department Should Be Located

By Thomas Armbruster:

Washington, DC was chosen as our nation’s capitol because it was the geographic center of the United States in 1790.  Since then, the geographic center has moved to Lebanon, Kansas for the contiguous 48 states and there are many cultural, economic, and educational “centers of gravity.”  The political center is still Washington, DC yet leaves many Americans feeling that their government is remote, out of touch, and absorbed only with inside the Beltway intrigue.  So let’s decentralize.   States can make their own case to host headquarters for Cabinet level departments.  For example, headquarters for the Department of Agriculture could in fact be Kansas.

Most federal officials are dedicated, hard working, and striving to meet the needs of their constituents.  The best move is placing them in communities with more relevancy. Video conferencing and airplanes alone debunk any reason for headquarters not moving to “the field” alongside the action.

Let’s take a close look at each of the 15 cabinet level executive departments and start putting them where they can do the most good.   First, put the Department of Agriculture right smack in farm country and let the Secretary of Agriculture commute to DC for Cabinet meetings.  Not a whole lot of farming gets done inside the beltway, although there is plentiful fertilizer.  Nebraska and the Dakotas are also candidates for the new headquarters.

The Commerce Department has a couple of obvious locations.  Texas exports about 167 billion dollars worth of goods compared to California’s 140 billion according to one estimate.  But other states also have strong trade figures, including North Carolina. Commerce also runs the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a cutting edge institute located in Maryland.

The leading contender for Education Department would have to be Massachusetts with over a 40% college attainment rate.  Put the Department square in the middle of all of those giant brains and see what kind of reforms can be put in place to raise the educational attainment of all other states.

Defense.  Sorry.  You guys have to stay in Virginia in the Pentagon.  You are too big to move and too big to fail and the Secretary of Defense has to be a limo ride away from the White House.  Plus, you’ve got that sweet Army-Navy Country Club and golf course nearby so you’re good.

The Department of Energy is a puzzler. It has a huge mission, including nuclear energy, nuclear weapons safety and development and energy research and development.  There are also world class research labs associated with DOE.  Collocating the department with one of the labs would not be a bad idea. DOE’s biggest challenge is likely the nuclear cleanup of the decommissioned Hanford nuclear facility on the Columbia River in Washington State.

For Health and Human Services, Hawaii.  America’s healthiest state.  Do I have any objections from HHS employees in Washington, DC?  I didn’t think so.

Homeland Security’s headquarters should be located wherever the TSA’s lines at the airport are the most efficient.  According to CONDÉ NAST that distinction goes to Tampa, Florida.  JFK has the worst wait time at over 16 minutes, which is a deterrent even for our worst enemies.

Housing and Urban Development is another challenge since no U.S. city makes it into the Top 10 list of cities worldwide for livability.  With Ben Carson coming from Baltimore, you could make a case for “Charm City,” thanks to Baltimore’s very successful inner harbor revival, but San Francisco, Chicago and NYC are certainly world class cities in their own right and even places like Jersey City make it into some of the top-rated American cities lists.  Melbourne is the top city in the world for livability so perhaps HUD officials could take a trip “down under” and see what works so well there.

For Interior, Alaska.  I’ll bet current Secretary Sally Jewell, a camper and adventurer herself, would go for it.  The four biggest American National Parks are in Alaska as well as our greatest natural resources.  As long as we don’t give Alaska back to Russia, that is the natural home of headquarters for the DOI.

The Labor Department fight could be interesting, with North Carolina being a leading contender.  The state hosts IBM, Daimler Trucks, Lenovo and Ingersoll Rand, and according to Chief Executive Network North Carolina is ranked number one for national manufacturing.

For the Department of State, New York.  The capitol of the world.  The food is better in NYC than Washington, DC, the UN is there, and the State Department building in Washington is probably one of the most ugly buildings in Washington.  The interior is nice and there are some great historical artifacts that you can visit on the seventh floor, but architecturally it is just a box.   Inside the air has been constantly recirculated since 1950 without a whiff of fresh air from the modern era.

Treasury should be in New York too since that is where the money is.

If the hyperloop is ever to be built, it will be in California, so the Department of Transportation has to be located in Los Angeles.  Maybe they can figure out LA’s gridlock while they are at it.

For Veterans Affairs, I nominate Alabama, the state with the highest percentage of vets in its adult population.  That’s where your customers are VA, so reach out and serve them where they live.

Other countries, Brazil and Kazakhstan for example, put their capitals in remote areas that they wanted to develop.  So, moving cabinet level departments to reinvigorate our national political processes is not unprecedented in the world.  Come to think of it, moving Congress to Kazakhstan might be a good idea while we are it!

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.

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