President Trump has made the phrase “drain the swamp” famous across the country, especially in its capital city. The slogan became a rallying cry to Trump’s base throughout the 2016 election to signify the need for change in running the government, but some have really taken the three words to heart.
Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., recently introduced the Strategic Withdrawal of Agencies from Meaningful Placement (SWAMP) Act, which would encourage federal agencies to relocate their headquarters to areas outside of Washington, D.C. The bill (H.R. 4863) would repeal a requirement in place since the country’s infancy that requires federal agency headquarters to be located in the capital, while creating a bidding process for states or municipalities to entice agency heads to move offices inside their borders.
“With the election of President Trump, the American people sent a strong message that they wanted a government that better serves them, not Washington bureaucrats,” Messer said. “There’s no reason why the Department of Agriculture has to be in the District of Columbia when it could be located in Indiana or another heartland state.”
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Messer said agencies staying inside or near the nation’s capital have disproportionately boosted D.C.’s economy and the added jobs and growth should be shared throughout the country. Currently, about 15 percent of federal employees work in the capital region, with the remaining 85 percent spread throughout the country. According to a study conducted by the labor market research firm EMSI on behalf of CityLab, the government accounts for between 1.2 million and 1.7 million jobs in the region.
The Indiana congressman is not the first to come up with the idea since Trump’s election. Former House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, pitched the idea last year and eventually introduced a resolution to that effect. It narrowly cleared his committee but has yet to receive a vote on the House floor. Chaffetz said the government could save money by moving the Homeland Security Department to Des Moines, Iowa, or the Interior Department to his home state.
Messer’s bill would actually forbid agencies from new construction, major renovations or lease agreements on existing headquarters within the D.C. area. The head of the General Services Administration would have to approve any relocation, which agencies could only request after opening up a bidding process to states and municipalities. Agencies would be required to consider the impact on workforce development, expertise of the state in handling issues related to the agency’s mission and national security interests.
Kristine Simmons, vice president of government affairs for the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said any proposal to relocate agencies should focus on more than just the economic impacts on individual regions.
“We have a legacy government that is antiquated in many ways,” Simmons said. “We need to modernize it, we need to enable it to serve people better and that is what should drive how government is structured.” The bill, she said, fails to emphasize how any moves would improve the delivery of government services or accomplishment of mission. She noted that agencies’ proximity to each other benefits them through easing co-locating, attacking challenges collaboratively and forming personal relationships.
She encouraged potential reformers to be “open-minded” in how they approach restructuring government.
“It’s an interesting idea and is worth being part of the discussion,” Simmons said. She noted it would come with a hefty price tag and should be preceded by an analysis of how agencies would benefit and what, exactly, lawmakers were trying to accomplish. Congress would still have final say on any proposed relocation, as it would have to authorize funding for any new headquarters. Finding new homes for government offices, Simmons said, should attempt to accomplish more than a “symbolic statement moving agencies out of the ‘swamp.’”
In a survey of Government Executive readers last year, respondents pitched their ideas for where agencies should relocate. Proposals ranged from moving the Federal Highway Administration to Chicago so it can refocus on its “real customers” such as state transportation departments to shifting the Environmental Protection Agency to Charleston, W.Va., to bring jobs back to areas hurt by environmental regulations. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has reportedly floated moving three of his component agencies to Denver.