It's Time to Move Federal Departments and Agencies Away from Washington | Opinion

NASA released a nationwide economic impact report—the first analysis of its kind—in late September, examining the space agency's effect on job creation and economic growth in all 50 states. According to the report, NASA generated $64.3 billion in economic output nationally in 2019.

As of last year, the space agency supported more than 312,000 jobs in the U.S. That includes tens of thousands of NASA-supported jobs in California (69,725 jobs), Texas (40,321), Alabama (35,768), Maryland (35,563), Florida (33,093), Virginia (27,097), Colorado (22,851) and Ohio (11,139).

This NASA report shows the economic impact that government agencies can have simply by operating outside of Washington, D.C. There is a growing interest in further dispersing the economic bang provided by the federal taxpayer buck through a broad relocation of federal agencies and departments away from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area to other regions of the country. The recent relocation of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters from D.C. to Grand Junction, Colorado, is seen by many, including lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as a template for future federal department moves.

The decision to move the Bureau of Land Management's headquarters, which was completed in August of this year, was first announced in March 2017 when President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order calling for a "Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch."

On its website, the bureau explains that "one of the goals of the order was to move decision-making out of the Washington, DC area and to move it closer to where the decisions would actually have impact." Ninety-nine percent of its mission area is in the Western U.S., so the relocation allows the agency "to move more decision-making to those areas."

Many would like to see other agencies and departments follow the bureau's example and leave D.C. After all, most of the activities, operations and programs managed or overseen by federal cabinet departments—like the Departments of Agriculture, Transportation, Education, Energy and the rest—are outside of D.C., spread across a vast continental nation.

Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced legislation in 2019 that, if enacted, would begin to move federal agencies away from Washington. That bill, the Helping Infrastructure Restore the Economy (HIRE) Act, would move 90 percent of the positions across 10 executive branch departments from Washington to economically distressed parts of the U.S.

Blackburn
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) speaks during Supreme Court Justice nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett's Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice on Capitol Hill on October 12, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Greg Nash - Pool/Getty

There is a strong case that it would be better to have the Department of Agriculture somewhere like Kansas City or Omaha, the Department of Transportation in Detroit or Cleveland and the Department of Education in Memphis or Milwaukee. In addition to the taxpayer savings, relocation of federal agencies and departments will improve living standards for federal workers, provide more and better education options for their children and a higher quality of life overall. "Moving agencies outside of Washington, D.C. both boosts local economies and lowers costs—that's a winning combination," said Sen. Blackburn about her bill.

Relocation of federal departments is not just some conservative fantasy. Prominent progressives have also endorsed the idea. Before his campaign ended, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang endorsed relocating federal departments outside Washington. His campaign website said that basing every agency in D.C. "has created a federal government that often feels divorced from large segments of the population."

Many left-leaning writers agreed. Two months after Donald Trump's surprise 2016 victory, Matt Yglesias advocated in Vox for "taking a good hard look at whether so much federal activity needs to be concentrated in Washington, DC, and its suburbs."

Yglesias stressed that the relocation of federal agencies and departments would bring more than just the government jobs directly tied to the transported bureaucracy. It would also bring jobs indirectly connected to federal departments.

"Each of these regulatory agencies is surrounded by a swarm of highly paid lawyers, economists, and lobbyists who make careers out of influencing their decisions," writes Yglesias. "Right now, those folks all live in the DC metro area, where they drive up the cost of already expensive housing. Their spending would do a lot more good in Detroit, Milwaukee, or Cincinnati, where they would create secondary jobs and bolster a larger regional economy."

Geographic diversification of the federal government is a project that could, depending on how it's done, garner bipartisan, cross-ideological support. If the people running the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives next year—whomever that ends up being—are looking for a reform initiative that could bring both sides together and rally the country in 2021, a bipartisan version of the Blackburn-Hawley bill could be a great place to start.

Patrick Gleason is vice president of state affairs at Americans for Tax Reform and a senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

It's Time to Move Federal Departments and Agencies Away from Washington | Opinion | Opinion