Escape from DC: The Case for Relocating the Executive Departments

Pentagon damage suffered on 9/11.

Presidential candidate Jeb Bush hit on something this week when he made a comment about potentially moving the headquarters of the Department of Interior away from Washington. His comments were made in the context of reigning in overbearing government regulation by the department on federally-owned lands in the West. Finding ways to make government more responsive to constituents’ needs is indeed a worthy cause. But the candidate’s proposal is also a good one for a second, very different reason — government resiliency.

The executive branch of the federal government consists of 15 departments, each headed by a Secretary. The heads of these departments constitute the core of the Cabinet, established in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution to advise the President. Listed in order of succession to the Presidency (after the Vice-President, Speaker of the House and President pro tempore of the Senate), these departments are: State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security. This line of succession is determined by according to the chronological order of the date of creation of their department. [For more information, visit https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/cabinet .]

President Obama meets with his cabinet.

In an age of weapons of mass destruction, the order of succession to the Presidency is of great importance. So is the fact that almost the entire top tier of the Executive Branch is conveniently located (from an adversary’s point of view) for group destruction in one small geographic area. This circumstance is unacceptable and unnecessary in light of the capabilities of modern communications technology. Workers at all levels of business collaborate over long distances every day. Video Teleconferencing technologies, screen sharing applications, in-screen video cameras in every laptop, and increasingly capable smart phones are just some of the technologies that keep co-workers connected without regard to geography. Though late to the party, even the federal government has started to embrace the telework concept for some of its workforce. The concept has even paid unforeseen dividends by increasing government resiliency during snow events in the Washington area over the past several years.

Given the current threat picture and the capabilities of modern communications, the time has come to geographically disperse the Executive Departments in order to increase the resiliency of the federal government. As Jeb Bush alluded to, it might make sense to locate the bulk of the headquarters element of federal departments closer to the constituencies they most closely regulate. The Department of Interior was specifically mentioned as a candidate to relocate to the West, where 90% of the land the federal government administers is situated (perhaps Colorado or Nevada). As a corollary, Chicago might make sense as the seat of the Department of Transportation, containing as it does two major airports and the main freight rail hub of North America. Maybe the Department of Agriculture would make sense centered in Iowa or Kansas. Perhaps the Department of Veterans Affairs could be relocated to Florida or Arizona where so many military veterans retire.

For some departments, Defense and Homeland Security come to mind, a change of venue might not make sense. The devil’s in the details, as they say, and there are lots of details that would need to be sorted out in order to effect such a momentous change in government at the federal level. But they could be sorted out in the course of a national conversation on the subject. It’s a conversation whose time has come.

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