Place more federal work centers outside the Beltway

Partly thanks to this Vox piece, one classic idea that’s been attracting new attention is the chestnut to relocate federal agencies out of Washington, DC, and into other areas scattered throughout the United States. Although it has generated this rebuttal in Greater Greater Washington, it’s an intriguing idea. For progressives, a better alternative may be to push for expanding the federal civilian workforce to a higher level that running our enormous and complex country demands, then place some of that new growth outside Washington, DC.

Although our government is not like a private business — one exists to serve all the people while the other exists to make money for a few — these scholars at the Brookings Institution offered some possible frameworks that could work:

The key, Katz said, would be to focus less on moving a given unit of the government to a given place and more on creating “networks of federally supported institutions” such as “energy discovery institutes” or metropolitan planning organizations. For instance, he said, “Kansas City shouldn’t care if it gets a particular agency to relocate to its metropolis; rather, it should seek to have an advanced research institution — either standalone or at the metro university — that relates to its particular clusters and economic position.”

Katz’s colleague Amy Liu goes a step further: Many corporations, she notes, have moved away from the headquarters model to one in which executives are stationed in one city, research and development in another, marketing in a third and so on. Why not distribute federal tasks in a similar way?

On first blush, the rationales for the original plan — relocate existing federal agencies out of DC — are appealing: disperse federal centers of power more evenly across the country and bring them closer to the citizens they serve, ease anti-government sentiments that arise from lack of in-person interaction, and let downtrodden regions reap the economic benefits of new federal jobs and infrastructure. It could also save federal dollars from cheaper building leases and lower cost-of-living adjustments to federal salaries, as well as lessen the worsening housing and transportation crunch in the DC metropolitan area.

That said, the proposal isn’t without flaws or unintended consequences. Given that the Beltway is the most highly educated place in the country, the federal government enjoys perhaps a uniquely high-caliber, highly-experienced recruitment pool. Another advantage of clustering federal employees together and near the White House and Congress is better communication and collaboration; hindering their interdependence could undermine performance as well as supervisory oversight by Congress. Furthermore, with the federal agencies flung far apart, only the highly compensated corporate lobbyists would be able to fly out to meet with officials while advocacy nonprofits and think tanks would not. The impact on federal litigation, and therefore federal policymaking, could also be hard to predict as lawsuits against agencies flow out of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

So what’s on the table is an interesting idea with a multitude of complexities, pros and cons and unknowns. But given the broader dynamics afoot regarding anti-Washington resentment and the political polarization of economic powerhouse regions, it’s a debate worth having.

For more information, useful citations include “Should the federal government move jobs out of Washington?” Greater Greater Washington (2016);  “Let’s relocate a bunch of government agencies to the Midwest,” Vox (2016); “How the Feds Can Really Spread the Wealth Around,” American Enterprise Institute (2016); “Move the federal government out of Washington,” CNN.com Op-Ed (2016); and “The case for breaking up Washington — and scattering government across America,” The Washington Post (2010).