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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