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Can We Move Washington, DC to Omaha? The Arguments for and Against Federal Agency Relocation

Jan 2, 2018 3 MIN. READ

Proposals to consider new homes for government agencies have reignited a longstanding debate.

In January, former House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), proposed moving parts of the federal government out of the national capital region (NCR). He argued that doing so would reduce costs and make government more responsive to the people.

The Chaffetz proposal was nothing new – presidents and members of Congress have made similar arguments for decades. The motivations and the stated reasons may vary, but the net effect of such proposals would be to spread federal agencies (including headquarters operations) across the country.

While the 2017 proposals from Chaffetz, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and others are couched in the "drain the swamp" mantra of the current administration, both Republicans and Democrats have made similar proposals in the past for diverse and sometimes opposite reasons. Some folks see it as a way to strengthen government agencies; others want to use it to reduce those agencies’ influence and effectiveness. Some argue the government will save money by relocating offices to lower-cost areas. Some say having government employees spread across the states would keep government workers from being disconnected from the lives of average Americans. Others argue that a more even distribution would ensure better continuity of government (the ability of the government to reconstitute itself and function after an attack or a natural disaster).

There is no shortage of arguments on either side. So who is right?

A Closer Look at The Distribution of Federal Employees — and the Concentration of Federal Power

It is hard to say which proposals or arguments hold water, or to determine the long-term effects of dispersing government. Before we try to answer those questions, though, we should take a look at the current distribution of the workforce.

When people talk about the federal government, they often refer to "Washington" as if the entire government is sitting in the NCR. About 15% of full-time permanent non-seasonal Executive Branch employees, including most of the highest-graded employees and key decision-makers, are located in the NCR. That is why so many lobbyists, lawyers, contractors, and other interest groups set up shop in the DC area. Make no mistake: the economy of the NCR is driven by government.

Some folks believe that level of concentration in the NCR is a big problem – that it causes the government and the people who work for and with it to become detached from the people government is supposed to serve. Others maintain that our nation made a deliberate decision to create a seat of government to be just that: a centralized, concentrated hub. The U.S. Capital was not established in a big city. In fact, Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power "To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings."

In short, this concentrated approach to government was not an error or an accident – it was by design.

Regardless of intention, the Constitution was written in 1787, and our contemporary idea of a concentrated seat of government is likely very different from that of our 18th century predecessors. No one was thinking of a country that extended from coast to coast with a population of 326 million.

federal employees by state

Washington, DC is the seat of government, but it is not home to the majority of federal workers. Just 280,000 full-time permanent non-seasonal Executive Branch employees — out of 1.9 million overall — work in DC. California (143,000) and Texas (115,000) have almost as many. In fact, when we look at the top ten cities for federal employment, only three of the top ten are in the DC area. Others include New York, Atlanta, San Diego, Chicago and San Antonio. 

When Does Relocation Make Sense? Start With “Why”   

So when folks say they want to move agencies out of DC, what many of them really mean is that they want to move agency headquarters functions out of DC. Is that a good idea? The answer could easily be “absolutely” or “absolutely not” — it all depends on why you do it, which agency headquarters are moved, and where they go.

Let's look back at some of the reasons why we might move agencies, because those drive the selection of agencies to relocate and where they might go. If we’re looking to fortify our continuity of government, then maybe we should move large chunks of Defense, Homeland Security, Treasury, Justice, and the State Department. They could move just about anywhere in the continental U.S., as long as that location is near a major city with adequate transportation and housing. If we want agencies to be closer to the people they serve, then maybe we should move more of Agriculture and Interior — probably to the Midwest and West. If we want to strengthen government’s connection to citizens, then it would probably be best to relocate agencies that have the most direct interaction with those people, like the IRS, the Postal Service, Social Security, and Medicare and Medicaid. 

If we are looking to save money, we should probably forget about it, because the cost of disrupting agencies and moving or separating a lot of people are so great that we most likely would not see savings in the near future. 

And if we are just trying to mess with or undermine the government? In that case, it really does not matter what agencies move or where they go.

The Potential Fallout of Mass Agency Relocation

Just as there are good reasons to move certain agency headquarters, there are some great reasons to refrain. A radically dispersed government may be less effective and less responsive to the people. No one would argue that current interagency communications and collaboration are as good as they should be; now, imagine how that situation would further deterioriate if those agencies were located all over the country. Moving Social Security to Dallas or Topeka or Dayton might make that agency more responsive to the people in one of those cities, but how would that approach translate to Seattle, Chicago, Cleveland, or any other distant city? Even if the move was intended to "drain the swamp," do we really think that the lobbyists would not pick up and move to wherever the agencies they want to influence are located?

The disruption that massive relocation of agencies would create makes it less likely that those agencies will be able to meet their mission requirements. From a continuity of government perspective, distribution might make it harder to wipe out agency leadership in one fell swoop, but it might also pin a target on cities that our enemies would have otherwise ignored. While we are on the topic of catastrophic events, what about natural disasters? Would we say that the threat of hurricanes and earthquakes would necessarily prohibit an agency from relocating headquarters to Florida, Texas, Louisiana, or other areas that have, historically, borne the brunt of these disasters? 

I understand the motives of folks who talk about moving government agencies, especially given my personal experience with relocation. When I was Human Resources (HR) Director for the Defense Logistics Agency, we were having trouble hiring skilled HR professionals in the DC area. On top of that, the competition for HR talent necessitated higher grades for employees who did meet our needs. To resolve those issues, I relocated headquarters human resources support to Columbus, OH and New Cumberland, PA. It was a good move — driven by effectiveness and efficiency, not politics — and I would do it again. 

The bottom line is that relocating agencies is a big deal. It should be done for valid reasons, and only after extensive analysis of the options and the likely outcomes. If and when we do undertake a massive relocation, a non-partisan commission — not politicians — should helm the process. That commission should conduct public hearings, hear from experts who can outline the consequences of options, and deliberate in public, rather than behind closed doors. If that happens, we might find that we should move parts of the government. We might find that it is a bad idea. But if we are not willing to make the decision based on good government rather than good politics, let's just leave it where it is.

When and how do you think a relocation should take place — if at all? Let us know what you think on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn

A version of this article originally appeared on GovExec