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Chat highlights: Breaking up Washington

By Ed O'Keefe

Highlights from Monday's chat with The Post's Alec MacGillis about his Outlook piece pondering whether it's time to move some federal offices out of Washington, D.C.:

Splendid Idea: There's simply too much communication and close coordination between the various bureaus and branches of the U.S. government. This government is way too efficient. What we need is a Justice Dept based in Cleveland, and the FBI HQ in San Diego. Also, the House should be in Mobile, Ala. while the Senate should be in St. Paul, Minn. Forget the subway running under the Capitol, we'll need a bullet train. Brilliant idea!

Alec MacGillis: What subtle sarcasm! But I get your point -- if the government is already too silo-ed and compartmentalized now, why make the problem even worse by scattering it around the country? This is a good point, and in fact, the Obama administration is trying hard to get better coordination among agencies. But I guess I would argue in response that if things are so silo-ed already, with the departments are clustered so close together, how much worse could it really get if things are scattered more? And as one of the people I quote in the piece, Bruce Katz of Brookings, argues, you could conceivably get better coordination through the scattered approach if you organize things in a more regional way, with different agencies out around the country working together to deal with given issues in given places, instead of all working on their own narrow agendas in Washington, even while being more closely physically located there.

Breaking Up Washington: Washington is already broken. Are you suggesting the different departments be treated as separate entities responsible to the people and not the President?

Alec MacGillis: The agencies and departments would still be part of the executive branch, accountable to the President. But one reader, a Washington attorney who's thought a lot about these things, wrote me yesterday with one proposal to aggressively reform the actual command structure -- he suggests breaking the country into regions, each of which would have its own elected "vice president" who would oversee the operations of the federal government in his or her area. That could conceivably produce better regional coordination among agencies and departments, and it would introduce a healthy tension between Washington and the rest of the country that might, if it works, produce a result where only the functions that really ought to be at the center are in fact located there.

Federalism Versus States' Rights: A lot of these discussions seem rooted in the Federalism versus state republicanism debates of the 18th and 19th centuries. What major philosophical differences, if any, do you see from these debates today and those of the beginnings of our government?

Alec MacGillis: A good question. Obviously, as my piece briefly notes, our system has sought from the start to keep power from being unduly concentrated in the capital by apportioning a fair amount of authority to the states. And states still have plenty of power, and public employment is scattered around the country in the form of millions of state jobs. But the federal government has nonetheless grown over time. And while some of the growth has occurred in areas that true federalists would argue belong at the state level, the case can be made that a lot of the growth properly belongs at the federal level. There are obvious areas like national security, and then there are areas such as health care reform -- one reason the Democrats decided to try to overhaul the health care system was that many of the states that had the most uninsured people were showing next to no inclination to deal with the problem on their own. So if you have more things be handled at the federal level, the question then becomes, is there anything that could be done to keep the actual work itself from becoming too concentrated in one region of the country, so that things are not as out of balance as they to be today. That is what I'm hoping to get people thinking about.

Read the full chat and leave your thoughts in the comments section below

By Ed O'Keefe  | July 26, 2010; 1:53 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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