Feds: What’s so great about D.C. in the first place?

Where should the federal government locate? In reality, it’s already schmeared all over the country. Only 15% of federal employees live and work in the greater Washington, D.C. area anyhow.

So why should you?

The question has been on the minds of federal employees in light of the Trump administration’s sweeping of two small Agriculture Department bureaus out to Kansas City, Missouri. It hasn’t gone well. Most employees left and now the agencies look skeletal. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In fact, there’s a strong case for moving a lot of jobs out of D.C. That’s according to Alan Berube, senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution — hardly a wild-eyed nut.

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Berube published his analysis in response to an odd bill from two Republican senators, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. The HIRE Act, which stands for Helping Infrastructure Restore the Economy, would relocate several department headquarters to economically distressed states like Missouri and Tennessee. Berube pointed out that using the government itself as an economic stimulator and pork provider has bipartisan roots. For example, the chunks of government the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd managed to move to West Virginia long ago joined the pantheon of federal legends.

Moving employees and bureaus, though, differs from moving whole departments. Berube and others argue, it makes sense for the policy and budgeting people to be near Congress, the White House and one another. But many functions and the people doing them have no particular reason to stay in expensive, congested D.C. and its expensive, congested nearby suburbs.

The other day I spoke with a federal researcher from the remote Plum Island Animal Disease Center of New York, where they’re resting chemicals capable of killing swine fever germs. Plum Island seems like a splendid place for such an activity to take place.

Brookings provided a long list of agencies it says make good candidates for relocating jobs away from D.C. First on the list is the National Institutes of Health. NIH is full of brilliant people dedicated to health research and new clinical techniques. It’s a national treasure, but most of it lives on Rockville Pike in Bethesda, Maryland, and right across the street from the Walter Reed National Medical Center. They combine to produce a perpetually jammed stretch of road that’s a disgrace to humanity. Having navigated the stop-and-go — mostly stop — on a motorcycle in August, I admit to having growled to myself, “Move this all to Kansas City!” Or rebuild Rockville Pike into a flyover, or a tunnel.

But seriously, NIH works with academic institutions all over the country. Berube argued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does just fine in Atlanta, where it was first established in the 1940s. He cited other commentators who suggested a good location for NIH would be Cleveland.

Don’t knock it. I was born there, it’s a nice city and it has extensive medical research institutions like the Cleveland Clinic, the researchers noted. Berube said relocation factors should go beyond just sticking people in poor areas and “into how the nature of the agency’s work aligns with existing industry clusters in potential designation regions.”

That, perhaps, is what Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue was thinking for moving the Economic Research Service and the  National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Kansas City. But he did it clumsily and  got buy-in neither from employees nor from Congress.

By the way, one of those suggesting NIH go to Cleveland is presidential candidate Andrew Yang, a man quite distanced from the Trump-Purdue way of thinking.

Berube also listed the Social Security Administration as third on the list for moving people. I’m not as convinced on that one. Most of Social Security is just outside of Baltimore, where its campus is so large as to merit its own exit ramp off U.S. Route 70. By his own calculation, only 12,000 of 49,000 SSA employees are at headquarters.

But what of, say, the tiny Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? Maybe its 1,500 people should be mostly in New York or Charlotte, North Carolina, which is second only to New York as a banking center.

The chance of the Hawley-Blackburn bill ever getting to a president’s desk amounts to about zero, Berube and I agreed. Equally unlikely is that the composition and location strategy of the federal government will ever get a comprehensive look free of politics, emotion and distrust of others’ motivations. The people who work in and around D.C. mostly like it, and no one likes a forced relocation. On the other hand, the same forces work against those 2 million federal employees beyond the D.C. area from relocating to D.C.

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