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Decentralizing the federal government

By Bruce Walker
web posted October 13, 2003

I have proposed creating a constitutional convention by action of state legislatures and then having this constitutional convention remain in session indefinitely, with state legislatures changing representation as the composition of the legislatures changes. I also proposed having the constitutional convention not meet in come central location, but rather convene at the same time in fifty different states.

Technology allows government to move much closer to the people than it is now. The federal government itself could be largely decentralized, if it wished. The people might well want to wish for just that.

The District of Columbia does not need to house Congress, the President or the Supreme Court. The Constitution allows, but does not require, a federal district. Moreover, the Constitution does not prevent this federal district from changing as the Republic evolves.

Having the federal executive, legislative and judicial branches of government in a single city in the northeastern shore of the nation warps the perspective of policymakers and isolates those policymakers over time from the real interests of the people that they represent. One reason people do not run for office is the disruption that living in Washington cause to their families, their business and their lives.

Do Americans really need this?
Do Americans really need this?

Why not change all this? The two houses of Congress have the explicit constitutional power to set up their own rules and procedures. This power is largely immune to the obstructionism that applies to other federal reforms.

The House of Representatives could adopt rules and procedures that not only allow this body to conduct its business remotely, with the members able to participate in debating and in voting from their own district, but the House of Representatives could adopt rules and procedures that required that members only be allowed to debate, make parliamentary motions and vote while the member is in his home district. The Senate could do the same.

Thank C-Span for pointing out how often congressmen and senators give speeches to empty chambers. Is there any real and serious reason today why the business of legislation could not be conducted like every other business in the world - through advanced telecommunication systems?

Why stop with Congress? Adopt rules that require the Supreme Court to meet in a place more centrally located to most Americans. Perhaps, even, create a National Court of Appeals, which authority to hear almost all types of federal appeals before those reach the Supreme Court, and have that body specifically designated to be housed in Peoria.

The agencies of the federal government could also be moved to different locations in the country, including those federal regulatory agencies who do so much governing in the shadows. The citizens of the District of Columbia have been complaining for years about not having voting members in Congress. So why not cede that district back to Maryland, and let Washingtonians exercise the common rights of all state citizens as citizens of Maryland?

The impact of these changes are almost impossible to overstate. What plagues us as much as federalism is centralism. Federalism that genuinely reflected the myriad cultural, economic and social values of America would become quickly more sensible and less intrusive. Americans generally would begin to have much more practical influence over the federal government.

Lobbyists need to be able to congregate and to bid for the favors of legislative staffers, middle level bureaucrats, and nameless regulators. Spread the federal government out so that it dwells among the people, in small towns as well as big cities, in the South and West as well as the Northeast, and suddenly that government becomes much more a government of America and much less a government of Washington.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Calling a constitutional convention by Bruce Walker (September 29, 2003)
    Bruce Walker argues that the only way to stop all the abuse of the American Constitution is to hold a constitutional convention and give the country back to its people
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