Politics & Policy

Move Executive Agencies Out of D.C.

Sen. Todd Young (R., Ind.) speaks at a news conference in Washington, D.C., May 8, 2019. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
That's the GOP plan to drain the swamp, but bureaucrats aren't thrilled.

‘Drain the swamp” was one of the most frequent refrains of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. It was cathartic, an expression of frustration with the bloated bureaucracy of Washington that seemed, like much of Trump’s rhetoric, untethered to any substantive plan.

In recent months, however, a plan has been taking shape. Its most radical incarnation to date has been the DRAIN Act introduced in the Senate by Todd Young (R, Ind.) in February of this year. It’s a nice acronym (the implication is clear) but the full title is a little forced: “Decentralize Regulatory Agencies, Include the Nation.” Young’s plan is to move the headquarters of every nonsecurity federal agency away from the Washington area no later than 2030.

Under the act, local or state governments could apply to host the new headquarters of any given agency. The bill lists three criteria that would grant potential host sites priority: higher-than-average unemployment, existing infrastructure, and relevance of the agency’s mission to the location. Each of these criteria reveals something important about the proposal and its intentions.

The preference for areas with unemployment above the national average suggests that these relocations are meant to provide economic stimulus to underperforming regions. As a result, the plan risks evoking the instinctive ire of many conservatives. But the distinctive characteristic of this stimulus plan (if it can be called that) is that it is tied to concrete, stable projects. The jobs, the niches, the organizational structures, and everything else on which the success or failure of such an endeavor hinges are already in place and established for these agencies. This is not a question of throwing money at inefficient corners of the market in hopes that all problems will miraculously disappear. It is a sensible plan to shift existing organizations out of a place where they have no necessary ties in order to promote economic flourishing elsewhere.

The provision for existing infrastructure should also help to quell conservative fears. No major costs should be incurred in the course of the relocations. In fact, the plan should save taxpayers a whole lot of money in the long run. The bulk of the federal government is currently situated in the fifth most expensive city in the country. The amount of excess that could be slashed from the federal budget just by shifting out of Washington those agencies that need not be there is astronomical.

Though Young’s bill is still in committee and shows no signs of becoming law any time soon, the executive branch is quietly carrying out a piecemeal decentralization of its own. It’s started with just a few agencies: the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) of the USDA and the Bureau of Land Management within the Department of the Interior. The two research arms of the USDA will be relocating to Kansas City, while the Bureau of Land Management is moving its headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo.

The Bureau of Land Management relocation especially illustrates the third priority of the bureaucratic decentralization: strengthening the relationships between agencies and the people and places they serve. The overwhelming majority of the territory overseen by the Bureau of Land Management is in the western United States, so it makes very little practical sense for the weight of the bureau’s apparatus to sit on the east coast. And in addition to moving its headquarters, the bureau is spreading many of its employees throughout western field offices.

The USDA relocations, on the other hand, are justified primarily on fiscal grounds. The secretary of agriculture has estimated that the move will save roughly $20 million per year. While this estimate has been called into question, the objections rely in part on “the lost value of research from staffers who resign or retire rather than move.” But this is irrelevant to the costs of operation, which are without doubt lower in Kansas City than in D.C., and it’s not exactly a horrifying accusation. That some talented scientists would rather seek private-sector jobs in Washington than continue to suckle the taxpayer teat in Kansas City is, in my book, a welcome side effect.

In fact, a shocking number of bureaucrats are unwilling to move. The workers of ERS and NIFA have unionized in response to the plan, and at the time of an NPR report in mid July, just over a third of the employees of both have agreed to relocate. The majority, it seems, are choosing severance packages. It turns out the creatures of the swamp have gotten pretty comfortable there.

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