Commentary Magazine


Move the Capital to Nebraska?

Earlier this month, Ben Sasse, a Republican running for senator in Nebraska, briefly made national headlines when he suggested that the U.S. government should move the federal capital from Washington D.C. to Nebraska. His suggestion was clearly tongue-in-cheek:

“That’s it, the way to cure the incredible ineffectiveness and dysfunction of both parties in Washington — we move the capital to Nebraska,” he said in the spot. “Let’s move the capital to Nebraska and leave the lobbyists and influence peddlers back east,” he added.

Perhaps, though, there is some merit to his suggestion—not to move the capital from Washington D.C., but to relocate some branches of the executive out of the region. Once upon a time, critics castigated the late senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) for his unabashed embrace of pork, bringing as much as possible to his home state, not only short-term projects but also federal facilities. As CBS News noted upon his death:

He made sure plenty of federal complexes were built in West Virginia, including the FBI’s fingerprint repository in Clarksburg, the Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center in landlocked Kearneysville, and a training center and firing range near Harpers Ferry for customs and border protection officers.

Byrd’s motivations might have been selfish, wasteful, and often ridiculous, but the federal government has grown massively over the decades. Washington D.C. and its immediate suburbs have become a cultural bubble of government servants or those involved in lobbying, policy analysis, defense, or other related fields. As a home owner in the D.C. area, it’s been a blessing as I was inoculated from the bursting housing bubble in a way that I would not have been if I lived anywhere else in the country. The cultural bubble insulates from reality, however. If I did not do occasional lecturing for the U.S. military, I would have no reason to visit places like southwestern Louisiana, far upstate New York, central Wisconsin, or central Texas. Unless I made a real effort, I would not hear the local news, tune into the local radio station, or drive the back roads rather than the highway as I go from airport to base, or from facility to facility.

The cultural bubble and the detachment to which it can lead is one reason so many Americans dislike Washington D.C. At the same time, it can be unhealthy for government bureaucrats to be so detached from the lives of people who are so affected by the minutiae of regulations or the promulgation of decisions. Given the fact that so much, even within Washington D.C. itself, is now conducted by email or secure video teleconference, it really matters little whether one agency is two blocks away or 1,000 miles away when it comes to holding a meeting. Perhaps it makes sense for the Department of the Interior to be based somewhere in the interior, say Nebraska or Kansas. It might make more sense to have the Environmental Protection Agency based somewhere like Oregon or Montana, so that bureaucrats making decisions can interact with those whose lives and jobs might be directly impacted. Given the increasing importance of North Dakota to U.S. energy security, why not move the Department of Energy to Bismark? And wouldn’t the relocation of the Department of Homeland Security already scattered across facilities and states to Texas or Arizona make sense given issues of immigration and border security?

Admittedly, dispersing federal agencies further afield would be unpopular. It would decimate the Washington D.C. economy and be unpopular among those who like living in the nation’s capital. But the federal government doesn’t exist to subsidize indirectly Washington, or to make it into a boom town. And what Washington loses, other cities would gain. Just as military bases have become boons to cities like Fayetteville, North Carolina and Killeen, Texas, transplanting federal agencies might also spread the wealth, albeit in a different way than President Obama has envisioned. And if bureaucrats choose not to make the move to North Dakota, Oregon, Louisiana, South Carolina, or wherever departments might relocate, then that provides an opportunity for much-needed downsizing. Certainly no one would think about moving the White House, Congress, and even Pentagon, but for the remaining departments, perhaps breaking the Washington bubble would do the government some good, narrow the gap between government official and citizen, and improve function all around.

Perhaps Sasse’s “modest proposal” should enable some serious discussion about just what government has become, to what Washington D.C. is entitled, and how government might return to a time when it was far closer to the people whom it claimed to serve.

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