Get Out of Town

Agencies find greener pastures away from Washington.

For many years, pundits and politicians who fancy themselves Washington outsiders have made the case that we shouldn't just take for granted that the District of Columbia and its environs must be the center of gravity for the federal bureaucracy. Move government closer to the people it serves, they say, and away from the cloying confines of institutional Washington and the pernicious influence of lobbyists.

In a city where agencies jockey to be as close as possible to the White House, and are concerned about being located even across town, such arguments have never held much sway. And, of course, in the pre- Internet era, proximity really mattered. In order to be responsive to members of Congress and the president, and to work together when necessary, agencies needed to be headquartered near each other in a central location.

Now, such issues aren't nearly as significant as they used to be. And it's become clear that the concentration of agencies in the Washington area has serious adverse consequences. The daily commute, whether by car, train or bus, is a taxing grind. This is one of the main reasons lawmakers and Obama administration officials, not to mention rank-and-file federal workers, have become obsessed with promoting telework in government: Washington simply can't move all its federal employees efficiently into their centralized offices anymore.

There's another reason, too: Why should extreme weather, like last winter's devastating snowstorms on the East Coast, bring much of government to a screeching halt? Or even worse, what about a potential terrorist attack? In the post- Sept. 11 era, centralizing much of the government-especially defense and homeland security functions-in and around Washington poses a grave security risk.

All these factors have led agencies to consider shifting operations out of the Washington area. One city in particular has capitalized on the trend in a big way: Huntsville, Ala., which is featured on our cover this month.

In the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure round, the Defense Department was ordered to shift 5,000 jobs from the Washington area to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. That accelerated a trend launched in 1950, when the Army sent rocket scientist Wernher von Braun to the city to work on a ballistic missile program. He later became director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center at Redstone Arsenal. Soon, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the FBI, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and other agencies had set up shop in Huntsville.

Now, thousands of employees must decide whether to move, with their jobs, to Huntsville as the Pentagon shutters D.C.-area facilities. Maybe being stuck in an endless traffic jam or a sweaty Metro car will make their decision a little easier.

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