The federal government should move out of Washington

The federal government should move out of Washington

I was watching Parks and Recreation the other night when I reached a pivotal scene in the season 6 finale.

(For anyone concerned about spoilers, I would highly recommend skipping the next paragraph. It might ruin the ending of an otherwise perfect show.)

When Leslie Knope takes a job as a director with the National Parks Service, she asks to locate her Midwest office in her hometown of Pawnee instead of Chicago. In the subsequent season, we see Pawnee transform into a thriving town, moving steadily down the path of revitalization. There are mentions of new fast, casual restaurants, a Whole Foods (which Ron calls “Complete Foods”) and new mixed-use apartment complexes. Moreover, season 7 revolves around the prospect of a tech company locating a headquarters in Pawnee. 

Obviously this scenario presents a fictional universe full of stretches of the imagination in order to drive the plot forward. The transformation of Pawnee was way too rapid to be believable. But this spawned a thought experiment in my mind. What if we located more federal government agency branches and headquarters outside of Washington D.C. and into non-coastal regions?

A 2016 Vox article by Matthew Yglesias, "Let's relocate a bunch of government agencies to the Midwest," makes a compelling argument for this move. By centralizing virtually all of the government’s operations in the nation’s capital, we have placed enormous strains on Washington D.C., making the lives of its citizens much more difficult in the process. Housing scarcity, traffic congestion, and infrastructure decay are the norms. Moreover, it has created a sprawl that is slowly encompassing larger and larger swathes of Maryland and Virginia. All the while, the city’s lack of control over its budget, which is under Congress’s control, only makes these problems worse.

There is an inherent logic to cluster these government agency offices in Washington. The nation’s capital is where political power is centered. That is where the decisions are made. Some federal employees and elected officials interact on a daily basis. Congress and the Treasury need more than a Skype chat to coordinate economic policy, and the White House needs to be closer than a plane ride to the Pentagon. And there are regional offices spread across the U.S. to facilitate operations on a regional basis.

But there are agencies and departments which are not inherently political or directly tied to national security operations.

Yglesias specifically mentions the National Institute of health, which has its headquarters located in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb 30 minutes away from downtown Washington D.C. This location was partly borne out of necessity; the real estate in downtown Washington necessary to house the 20,000 people employed by the facility would be outrageously expensive. But the NIH has little reason to base itself in Washington. Its research and daily operations are not tied to the day-to-day workings of politics. Other agencies, whose core missions are independent of politics, have moved to the outskirts of the Washington metro. The USGS has moved to Reston, Virginia. The Social Security Administration to Woodlawn, Maryland. The National Weather Service (and 5,000 of its employees) is currently based in Silver Spring, Maryland. 

All of these relocations show that many of these agencies’ core missions and daily operations are not tied to a close proximity to the centers of political power. So why not move them even further away, situating their headquarters and hundreds of thousands of jobs across the United States?

In Midwestern cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee, there resides the shells of formerly thriving cities — cities where the infrastructure and housing stock from former economic glory remains, but whose vital industrial jobs have left. If you shift your gaze to the South, you have cities like Birmingham, Memphis and Charlotte with aspirations of becoming economic powerhouses, but in need of an identity to inspire the necessary development. In both cases, you have regions where the influx of well-paying and stable government jobs would be welcomed with open arms. Moreover, Yglesias argues, many of these cities have airports, large public universities and cultural amenities to support more citizens.

In the case of the NIH, their headquarters could be just as effective in Birmingham, Alabama. In fact, the infusion of well-educated technical experts to a city which already houses the medical researchers at UAB could give Birmingham an identity as a medical research haven, much like how the Redstone Arsenal and the NASA Space Flight Center transformed Huntsville into “The Rocket City.” In fact, if you couple the NIH with the CDC in Atlanta and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, the entire southeastern U.S. could become a biomedical research juggernaut. The economic prospects of this region could change overnight.

Even beyond the direct infusion of jobs, the secondary jobs could be a boon for cities. This means more waiters and waitresses working the lunch rushes from these government offices and more teachers to handle the influx of new schoolchildren. From a local government perspective, these cities will see a heftier tax base, meaning more money for road improvements, new schools, cleaner water and assistance programs.

But the benefits could move beyond the tangible and into the ideological. In a lot of areas, especially the South and rural Midwest, there is a latent distrust of the federal government. To them, Washington seems distant. Bureaucracy creates barriers between constituents and civil servants. But, decentralizing these federal agencies could have the effect of reducing this distance, both physical and ideological. Towns and cities across the nation fight tooth and nail to keep their military bases open, even when it places federal troops in their backyards. Not to mention the reality that many of these agencies are non-controversial. Few people would have gripes against the CDC, NIH, the National Park Service or USGS, and even less so when these agencies bring thousands of well-paying jobs.

In addition, Yglesias believes that moving some of these agencies out of Washington might result in what most Americans want: less lobbying power. Moving regulatory agencies such as the SEC, FCC, FAA and FDA out of the nation’s capital might go far in creating a buffer between these regulatory agencies and the lobbyists and lawyers paid to influence them. If you as a voter want to “drain the swamp,” this might be your best bet. 

The federal government cannot force private businesses to locate in certain regions. Many private companies locate in Silicon Valley, the Pacific Northwest and East Coast simply because they want to, and not even President Trump, the vaunted dealmaker, could keep that Carrier plant in Indiana from relocating to Mexico. But, the federal government possesses the unique ability to control almost 3 million jobs. I do not see how moving jobs out of D.C. into “Middle America” could be unpopular with the majority of Americans. Why not wield this immense power to affect change in economically distressed regions?

Nathan Campbell is a senior majoring in environmental engineering. His column runs biweekly. 

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