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The Department of Everything Else






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current topic An Imperfect Anthology




An Imperfect Anthology
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An Imperfect Anthology

As the foregoing account suggests, the history of the Department of the Interior is less like a novel than an anthology--a collection of works by different authors assembled under one cover. A proper anthology lacks the unity of a novel, but its separate components nevertheless cohere through some common theme.

At first, Congress--editor of the Interior anthology--had little theme in mind for the new agency. Its lumping of lands, patents, pensions, Indians, public buildings, and the census under the vaguest of departmental titles was a consolidation of administrative miscellany. What Congress was doing, in effect, was streamlining and sharpening the definitions of the pre-existing departments (State, Treasury, War, Navy) by removing functions periperhal to their explicit purposes. It created Interior largely as an umbrella for these displaced fragments, not to pursue any central mission of its own.

In the present century, as we have seen, a dominant theme materialized. Various of Interior's ingredients left for new or expanding departments and agencies addressing such topics as commerce, veterans' affairs, education, and energy. Most of those components it retained, gave birth to, and acquired from elsewhere dealt with the land and its resources. The anthology was revised to the extent that "Department of Conservation" and "Department of Natural Resources" were proposed as titles.

Interior gained neither of these more descriptive names, mainly because it failed to gain exclusive possession of the natural resource conservation theme. The anthology will remain incomplete as long as the U.S. Forest Service--overseeing federal acreage second only to that of the Bureau of Land Management--remains under the Department of Agriculture. Interior's largest element in terms of budget and full-time personnel, moreover, is the Bureau of Indian Affairs--a human services provider as well as a natural resource manager. The presence and absence of other functions constitute lesser anomalies and missing ingredients.

At this writing there is no prospect of perfecting or retitling the Interior anthology. The once-vigorous campaign to capture the Forest Service has long been dormant, and there has been no serious suggestion of removing BIA. Although far more cohesive than in its early years, Interior seems unlikely to fully comprehend and concentrate upon a single theme. Perhaps this is just as well. While the mundane titles of most of its cabinet agency counterparts--Defense, Commerce, Transportation, and the like--preclude speculation about their functions, there is an appealing aura of mystery and intrigue about "Interior." Admitting of many possibilities, the name connotes a department unconfined to a single purpose and perhaps a bit fuzzy around the edges. So it is, and so it is likely to remain.

Interior Building
The present Interior Building, completed 1936 (previous building at rear)

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