Way Beyond the Beltway

We Can’t Change Washington—So Let’s Dismantle It and Spread It Around

The culture of Washington is totally unchangeable. But we can breathe new life into government agencies by taking them out of Washington. Yes, really.

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Americans obviously believe there’s something wrong with Washington. But what needs to change? Generalized anger at Washington gets the public nowhere. Candidates have been running against Washington for decades, and have a perfect record of failing to fix it. It’s infuriating, like punching a pillow.

Villains include Congress, entrenched bureaucracy, special interests, and campaign finance. But there’s something deeper wrong with Washington—its culture. Spend any time there, and you see a broad acceptance of the ways things work. Lobbyists, lawyers, staffers, civil servants, contractors, journalists and others all seem to accept Washington’s glacial approach to things. Let’s have another meeting, or set up a new committee, and try to find the lowest common denominator so that no one is unhappy.

Washington is a place where nothing much changes. Once in a while, with great struggle, there’s a new law. But old programs are basically immortal—Exhibit A is New Deal farm subsidies. Below the high peaks of absurd obsolete programs, there are several thousand invisible programs that are broken and wasteful in various ways. But no one in Washington seriously tries to fix them. Fixing government is not part of the culture. It’s just too hard. Fixing things requires offending someone.

Electing a new president can’t fix broken government, even with 4,000 new appointees. Good people who are willing to stand up for what’s right find themselves outnumbered by people who are used to doing things the old way. The machinery of Washington involves a million or so people who are stakeholders. They can’t imagine doing things differently. Civil servants have a phrase for resisting any efforts at change: “WEBEHWYGs” (pronounced “WEE-BEE-WIGs”) or “We’ll be here when you’re gone.”

So what do we do? I once had a fantasy about moving the national capital. It wouldn’t matter where, as long as new people were in charge. Most Americans go to work expecting to make things work. They take responsibility—for results. Americans are willing to make hard choices, because that’s their job.

Why wouldn’t people in Washington simply move to the new seat of government? In my fantasy, they’re stuck because they can’t sell their homes. Who wants to buy a house in a place where all the jobs just disappeared?

I no longer think moving government out of Washington is so fanciful. Ok, it’s not practical to move the Congress or the White House—that would require a constitutional amendment. But there’s no reason why most agencies can’t be spread around the country. The FDA could move to Boston or San Diego, both cities with a cohort of scientists. The IRS could move to Dallas. Some people might move with the agencies, but the goal is to replace a failed culture by reorganizing government with new people willing to take responsibility for results. Experience with federal agencies located outside Washington is generally positive. The Centers for Disease Control (Atlanta) and NASA’s ten field centers, for example, seem to get the job done.

I can’t be serious, you’re probably thinking. Washington can barely give a permit to fix broken infrastructure, much less completely reconstitute agencies. But that’s the point. Representative government has become a bad joke. We must remove the wool from our eyes and see Washington for how it actually works, not how it looks in civics books.

The culture of a place determines how it works. Whether people in a place take responsibility, feel free to innovate, speak truth to power, pitch in, help others grow, or do a thousand other things that help a group thrive, is usually fostered by its culture. Conversely, a culture can also lead people to be self-protective, short-sighted, quick to assign blame, and uninterested in joint purpose. A good culture does not guarantee success, but a bad culture, sooner or later, will guarantee failure.

Washington has a bad culture. It always had the venality of capital cities, but it became far worse as a result of institutional design changes after the 1960s, which basically replaced individual responsibility with detailed rules. Human agency disappeared into a huge hairball of bureaucracy.

Ceding authority to mindless rules put the culture in a tailspin. Without any human in charge , there was no way to overcome opposition from any interest group—what political scientist Francis Fukuyama calls a “vetocracy.” Governing became a legal free-for-all among multiple stakeholders. Worse, there was no cost to inaction. When anything goes wrong—say, the President can’t rebuild decrepit infrastructure, or doctors spend too much time on paperwork instead of patients—the answer is always the same: The rule made me do it.

Without human control, the culture of Washington spawned five pathologies, which, together, are probably not fixable:

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Aversion to Responsibility. In Washington, the surest way to get in trouble is to make a decision actually to do something. Far safer to kick the can down the road. Officials taking responsibility is the core idea of democratic government. Washington’s culture is the mirror opposite—a place where people flee from responsibility like the plague.

Fear of Spontaneity. America is a land of plain-speaking. In Washington, candor is like forbidden fruit . People in Washington feel accountable for appearances, not results. Go to any official meeting, and the air is heavy with unspoken fears and feelings. The self-consciousness poisons the spontaneity that is essential to mutual trust.

Culture without shame. A culture without responsibility quickly spirals into an amoral culture. Doing what’s legal, instead of what’s right, allows people to justify all kinds of cynical decisions. When no one has authority to keep people tethered to the common good, public policy becomes a transaction using money and power. Just play your cards.

Culture of phonies. When politicians give up on results, they compete by rhetoric. Instead of sitting down to hammer out tough choices, they incite public emotions by highlighting hot buttons like gun control, abortion and trans-gender bathrooms. It’s hard to disguise posturing. People come off as too sanctimonious. When the C-span cameras turn on, Americans get the complete picture of Washington self-righteousness: long-winded pronouncements that feel like cartoons even as they are being delivered.

Culture Without Common Purpose. Edward Banfield’s study of a region in southern Italy, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, demonstrates how a culture balkanized into self-protective groups loses the capacity to fix collective problems. Villagers trusted only their immediate families, and lost the ability even for simple cooperation with neighbors and others. Teaming up to clear a field, or fix a road, was impossible—because everyone assumed others would shirk the work.

As in Banfield’s backward village, people in Washington are atomized into self-protective bubbles. . The White House is notoriously isolated. Members of Congress don’t socialize with the other side. Interest groups collectively destroy the commons by overgrazing. Pervasive self-interest infects daily dealings with debilitating distrust Washington is less a bazaar than a no-man’s-land. It’s every group for itself.

People who posture while extracting public goods for their own benefit reveal something important: They know they’re not doing anything for the public. They personify the broader failure of Washington. They’re not dealing with the challenges of our time. They’re just pretending to govern.

The anti-Washington instinct of American voters is correct: The soul of Washington is a big empty hole.

It’s almost impossible to fix a bad culture. Even when the writing is on the wall, people can’t change. That’s why there are revolutions. Why wait? Move the machinery of government out to places where American values can take charge again.

Philip K. Howard, author and chair of Common Good, is co-chair of a new bipartisan initiative to overhaul Washington. A cartoon video accompanies this essay.