Please, Let’s Put an End to the Notion of Moving Agencies Out of Washington

Disruptively relocating headquarters and the employees who work in them makes less sense than ever.

The announcement this week that the Bureau of Land Management had reversed a Trump administration decision to relocate its headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado, marked yet another twist in the recurring drama over whether federal agencies should be dispersed around the country.

On the surface, the case for moving agencies out of the D.C. area is simple and straightforward, which is why it has been made by both Republicans and Democrats over the years. Putting all of the power centers of the federal establishment in Washington, the argument goes, consolidates too much power in D.C. and makes agencies more attentive to special interests and less attuned to the needs of the people they’re supposed to serve.

“Every year Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars fund federal agencies that are mainly located in the D.C. bubble,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said in 2019. “That’s a big part of the problem with Washington: They’re too removed from the rest of America.”

Self-styled D.C. outsider Andrew Yang picked up on the relocation idea during his brief moment in the sun in the 2020 presidential campaign. “Washington DC feels very detached from the daily lives of most Americans,” he tweeted. “One way to change this—relocate Federal agencies that don’t need to be in DC to other parts of the country. Would save tons of money too as DC is one of our most expensive cities.”

Sounds good, but the get-out-of-D.C. argument rests on two fallacies. The first is that the federal workforce is too Washington-centric. In fact, upwards of 80% of federal employees work outside the national capital region. If the idea is to have federal operations close to the people, then mission accomplished.

The second fallacy is that federal agencies can better serve the American people by being physically close to them. In fact, while lack of familiarity with federal operations surely breeds contempt for government, putting an agency in an area it regulates or serves can make it captive to regional interests. What’s more, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that agencies and private companies can get their work done and maintain connections with their stakeholders from anywhere. So why go to the expense and disruption of uprooting agencies and their employees and moving them across the country?

Speaking of private businesses, if the federal government is supposed to follow their example, then officials might take note of how many companies have moved to the Washington area in recent years. From Northrop Grumman to Lockheed Martin to Amazon, major corporations clearly find the region attractive. 

In reality, there are two fundamental reasons why politicians like the idea of moving federal operations to middle America and beyond. The first is that it involves transactions in one of today’s most precious political commodities: pork. By arranging a headquarters move to their state or district, lawmakers can bring home the bacon in the form of federal jobs. With restrictions on funding for pet projects imposed by congressional rules, relocations are one of the few options lawmakers have for delivering the goods to their constituencies. 

And once they have delivered, it’s not easy to take those jobs back. For example, in order to placate Colorado Democratic Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet about the BLM reversal, the Biden administration had to agree to keep a beefed-up agency presence in Grand Junction.

The second reason for insisting on moving agencies out of Washington is one more appealing to Republicans: It causes D.C.-based employees to leave their jobs rather than move. 

Former Trump Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney let the cat out of the bag on that strategy at a GOP event in his home state of South Carolina two years ago. “Now, it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker,” he said. “I know that because a lot of them work for me. And I’ve tried. And you can’t do it. But simply saying to the people, ‘You know what, we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven, and move you out into the real part of the country,’ and they quit. What a wonderful way to streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.” 

It is indeed challenging to fire even a poor-performing federal employee. But it’s quite something to attempt to address that issue by inducing high-performing employees to resign by moving their jobs across the country. So maybe it’s time to just leave headquarters operations alone.