- - Sunday, October 7, 2012


For many Americans this election season, “inside the Beltway” has become a term of derision and contempt. Too many voters are disgusted with what they sense is neglect — if not disdain — for their interests by legislators and by a bloated Washington bureaucracy, at a time of great economic distress and international disequilibrium. The steady increase in federal government employment, whether under Democratic or Republican presidents, lends credence to that gut feeling.

Those acquainted with America’s past are shocked to hear references to “the political class” — a European term supposedly not applicable to American democracy. However inchoate and lacking in solutions was the tea party outburst in 2010, it gave political substance and long-term clout to the growing public outcry against “the permanent government,” an alliance between incumbents who are increasingly difficult to defeat and the growing bureaucracy that serves them. As someone once noted, a bureaucracy ceases to perform the function for which it was created within a generation and turns monomaniacally to the pursuit of its own interests.

For those of us who have dealt with the various Washington mafias, there is little doubt that the bureaucracy often substitutes its own self-interest for the public good. The recent extravaganzas of bawdy getaways to the pleasure domes by bureaucrats on the taxpayers’ tab are the least of our problems. More important, as in all political scandals, are the elaborate efforts to cover up the excesses or, even worse, to accept this kind of waste and inefficiency as part of “the system.”

The Founding Fathers, obsessed by their knowledge of the frailty of human nature, sought to mitigate the possibility of the federal government becoming just such a monster. For one thing — and those ward heelers out there chasing a few more votes should take note — the founders set out to make the seat of the federal government immune from the temptation to become a bureaucratic center of political activity by castrating it. They denied the franchise to residents of the federal city in an effort to remove them from the temptations of crasser politics.

Of course, their hope in an 18th-century environment that government would be a part-time occupation for elected participants proved to be a will-o’-the-wisp in the face of the challenge of creating a continental economy. Although more than three-quarters of all federal employees today work outside the capital, almost a quarter-million live in the D.C. area. They have sloshed out of the federal district itself into neighboring Virginia and Maryland, distorting those states’ politics while handing their elected officials useful additions to their tax bases.

Meanwhile, the District has become a prime example of modern urban dysfunction — with its own underclass ghetto, sharp income disparities, permanent traffic jams and a corrupt and inefficient municipal government sharing governance duties with Congress, which should have better things to do.

Furthermore, although President Obama in four years has added only 20,000 capital government employees — ironically, some of his Republican predecessors added far more — the problems are being compounded daily.

What to do?

Handing back to the states powers seized by the federal government in such fields as education, public health, national social legislation and regulation tailored to local and regional conditions would be part of the solution. But what would be a real game-changer for Washington and the government as a whole would be to move federal agencies out into the country.

In a digital age, there is no good reason the Department of Health and Human Services (18,000 employees), an agency that represents almost a quarter of all federal outlays and administers more grant dollars than all other federal agencies combined, must have headquarters in Washington. It could just as easily be moved to, say, Tulsa, Okla., with the lowest cost of living of any major American city. The top offices of the Department of Agriculture (110,000 employees) might go off to Omaha. There are dozens of “independent” commissions and agencies (some of them nearly forgotten) that might profit from a change of scenery.

Of course, such a move wouldn’t solve Washington’s basic problems. Nor could we be sure it would help all that much. But for political as well as economic reasons, moving more of the bureaucracy out into the hinterlands would make a lot of sense.

Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at [email protected] and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.

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