By Jackson Adams
On the heels of Amazon’s national search to site a new headquarters, Congress is considering legislation that would allow federal agencies, like the Pentagon, the Justice Department, and the EPA, to move to the hinterlands.
The Strategic Withdrawal of Agencies from Meaningful Placement Act (SWAMP Act), sponsored by Rep. Luke Messer, an Indiana Republican, would overturn a 1947 law requiring all federal agencies be located in the national’s capitol, unless otherwise specified by Congress.
Instead it would establish a bidding process for states and municipalities to compete for the relocation of a federal agency’s headquarters.
“Our legislation would help deliver on President Trump’s promise to drain the swamp and at the same time allow more communities across the United States to benefit from added jobs and increased economic growth,” Messer said.
The Truman-era law was adopted following the “New Deal,” which saw unprecedented growth in number of federal agencies and a swelling of the federal workforce to highest peacetime levels in American history. Federal growth continued upward ever since.
Today there are more civilian federal workers than currently serving members of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps combined.
Both Democrats and Republicans could find reasons to support it, but that doesn’t mean they will.
“There could hypothetically be support for this general idea on right and left,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of [Larry] Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a well-known political science publication out of the University of Virginia. “With communication so easy these days, I don’t see why more government workers/agencies couldn’t be spread out throughout the country.”
This is the third proposed bill in a year to address the issue of moving federal agencies in the House. Last February, Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson, a Republican, submitted a ‘Drain the Swamp Act’ calling on executive agencies to submit plans for relocation. Last April, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat, submitted the Federal Government Decentralization Commission Act, which called for a commission to “to study and submit a plan for the relocation of executive agencies or divisions of executive agencies outside the Washington metropolitan area.”
Although both bills received co-sponsors, neither bill made it for a vote.
So far, Messer’s “Swamp Act” is at the early, embryonic states of legislation. The bill has been assigned to the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management. No mark-up of the bill has yet been scheduled, a critical next step to the bill becoming law.
The move might be technically possible, but it may be less efficient, especially considering how spread out the federal government already is.
“Given that the agencies in the D.C. area are there to increase the efficiency of management and policy making, including the leadership testifying before Congress, I would be surprised if the leadership of either party would have an interest in this bill,” said Professor Gerald Wright, chair of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Wright also noted that an underlying assumption of the bill – that federal employment opportunities are restricted to Washington – is incorrect. “Only about 1 in 6 of the 1.87 million fulltime federal employees live in the D.C. metro area.”
Counting post office and military workers, each state has a considerable federal workforce already in place.
At approximately 461,000, California has the most, followed by Virginia. DC proper only counts an estimated 64,000 federal workers by comparison.
Still SWAMP Act supporters argue that it is not the sheer number of employees, but the concentration of workers in Washington, especially the top brass, that must be addressed.
According to Census statistics, in 2016 Washington DC had an estimated 1,030 federal employees per square mile, followed by Maryland at 34 and Rhode Island at 14. Virginia, a much larger state of nearly 40,000 square miles, has 11 federal employees per square mile.
Not surprisingly, other large states don’t have nearly as high a ratio. Alaska had the fewest, at 0.07 federal employees per square mile, followed by Wyoming (0.11) and Montana (0.15). California, which has the most federal employees in the country, only has 2.9 per square mile.
“There’s no reason why the Department of Agriculture has to be in the District of Columbia when it could be located in Indiana or another heartland state,” explained Messer in a statement.
Indiana has 1.3 federal employees per square mile.
“If the Department of Agriculture moved to Des Moines, Iowa, there might be an interesting effect,” said Aaron Renn, senior fellow and urban policy expert at the Manhattan Institute. “If you move the location, obviously it would create jobs–good ones–but would it stimulate other activity? Does moving career bureaucrats create a spin off economy in the way that Silicon Valley does with people leaving to start new companies?”
If moving federal jobs has a limited economic impact, could it nevertheless have a political impact, especially in swing state Virginia?
“If one moved enough government employees out of the D.C. area it would leave a place like Virginia a bit more Republican and conservative,” said Professor Wright. “However, that kind of mass exodus is not at all likely.”
Even with a move, voter dynamics would not change.
“Densely populated areas all across the country have become increasingly Democratic, whether they are areas with heavy concentrations of government workers or not,” said Kondik. “Chances are that even if one moved some of the bureaucracy out of the DC area, the DC area would remain Democratic.”
Some point out that the target may be misguided.
“The real issue is that we have centralized so much,” said Renn. “The attitude here is treating DC like a monopoly that needs to be broken up. Is it possible? The real power is in Congress and the White House, not the career bureaucrats.”
To shift that, Renn pointed out that a deeper shift needs to take place.
“As long as we are centralizing power, power will go to the center,” he said. “We need instead to reduce the scope of what Washington DC does.”