Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush suggested during his recent Reno visit it would be a good idea to move the Interior Department to the western United States — perhaps even Reno — because so much of the land it administers is located in the West.
Having worked for the U.S. government for 28 years, during which time I worked and lived several years in Washington, D.C., and its suburbs, it’s clear to me the concentration of federal government offices there has serious drawbacks. People who work inside the Washington beltway think and act as if they are at the center of world power and that they are all a little more important than citizens in the rest of the country. This is not surprising given the large number of officials in such a small area.
Recent studies indicate seven of the nation’s eight wealthiest counties are located around Washington. This is so in part because the lobbying industry is concentrated there and it’s awash in money. Add to that the fact average government salaries are currently higher than those in the private sector and real estate prices there are sky high, and the statistic makes sense.
Does that mean Reno would enjoy an economic boom if the Interior Department relocated here? Yes, as rents and local hires would benefit the city’s economy. And the influx of managerial staff with their high salaries would bring a multiplier effect, of course, so the service industries they use locally would experience a significant boost. But without doubt the biggest benefit would be for senior Interior Department officials to rub shoulders daily with neighbors who are concerned with public land issues and hear our concerns about their policies.
But is it realistic for that Department to relocate from Washington to Reno?
There is certainly no reason the headquarters couldn’t function every bit as effectively in Nevada as it does in Washington. Communications technology has advanced to the point where it’s easy for staff members in a distant office to communicate with colleagues by video conferencing and other sophisticated systems from 3,000 miles distance as if they were down the hall.
But the biggest problem in moving any government office out of Washington, D.C., is managers would feel as if they were no longer in the power bubble that Washington represents. There’s a feeling of enormous power sitting in a restaurant and recognizing people at neighboring tables from evening TV news interviews. My first office there was two blocks from the White House, and I rubbed elbows daily with presidential staffers. And for a while our neighbor was a newscaster whose face was on the screen every night. That is a heady feeling, and Interior Department officials would push back against the prospect of giving that up.
There’s no doubt the Interior Department could relocate here (or Salt Lake City or Denver) and perform its oversight of public lands effectively without losing contact with the rest of the U.S. Government.
But frankly, the timing of the Bush announcement strikes me as pandering to voters in a state that chooses its party candidate early in the primary process. Color me skeptical about Jeb’s suggestion: I don’t think it represents a serious policy recommendation. And even if it were, employees in that Department would fight the move so they could stay in the Washington power bubble.
I firmly believe it would be good for the Department of the Interior to move to Reno, but I don’t think it will happen, even if Jeb was elected.
Fred LaSor retired from the US Foreign Service 15 years ago. He lives in Minden.