There’s a commendable focus on racial, ethnic and gender diversity in appointments to the incoming Biden administration, while one characteristic goes unremarked and possibly neglected. That is geographical diversity.
While our U.S. Constitution justly requires that Congress represent every area of the nation, there is no such requirement for the White House, the administrative bureaucracy or Supreme Court. As a consequence, Ivy League graduates and other East Coast elites are grossly over-represented in the upper echelons of government, while the vast bulk of agency headquarters is jammed into Washington, D.C., and a narrow nearby strip of the Atlantic Coast.
As a result, vast areas have little connection with the federal government, and often in fact feel neglected and even victimized by it. Some who were otherwise unimpressed by the Trump administration quietly applauded relocation of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters from Washington, D.C., to the interior West — though Denver or Salt Lake City would have been a far more logical choice than isolated Grand Junction, Colorado.
One agency that has historically done a better job than most of maintaining diverse geographical connections is the National Archives and Records Administration. In the Pacific Northwest, its facility down the road from the University of Washington in Seattle is a major focal point for our region’s recorded history — everything from Indian treaties and genealogical records to photographs and the voluminous paperwork generated by scores of other federal offices. In a nation that is supposed to be “by, for and of” the people, these are literally our records.
It thus was hugely disappointing when the Trump administration announced it was closing this repository of a million boxes of military, land, court, tax and census papers and shipping them off to Riverside, California, and Kansas City, Missouri. All of Alaska’s federal archives — moved to Seattle in 2016 — will also be put effectively out of reach to most who might want to see them.
Some may suggest that in this age of digital everything, surely all papers of interest must be available online. This is an idle dream. The Seattle archives has been digitizing documents. It estimates it currently has finished about one-thousandth of 1% of the collection.
While there was some hope this misguided misappropriation of our history could be countermanded, the Seattle Times reported a sneaky rush to sell off the 10 acres of prime real estate — presumably to high-end developers or some cash-flush tech company.
Although he has squandered some of his impact by suing too often in these past four years, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is fighting a good and worthwhile battle to force the obscure five-person federal Public Buildings Reform Board to disclose information about sale of the archives facility. Washington state’s U.S. senators have also weighed in, with Sen. Patty Murray saying, “I have been incredibly disappointed over the past year as the Trump administration has consistently ignored public input and failed to act in a transparent manner ...”
Democrats and Republicans alike should believe in keeping government as close as possible to the people. Eliminating important regional outposts of the National Archives flies directly in the face of such basic goals as providing citizens with access to the records created by agencies that are supposed to be accountable to us.
There should be an explicit commitment by each incoming president to making certain that the best talent from every corner of the nation is represented in their administration. By the same token, public assets like archives should be decentralized and kept as close to the people as possible.