Good Way To Reform Government: Move It

BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON  |  JUN 23, 2019

Back in January 2016, the FBI was searching Maryland and Virginia for a new location for its Pennsylvania Ave. headquarters and I wondered why the search did not include North Carolina, Kentucky, or any of the other many states in which the Bureau could be housed less expensively and more efficiently.

Moving more of the Federal bureaucracy out of Washington is not a new idea. Legislators had been musing about it for years and legislation to explore the prospect was actually introduced in the last Congress by former Congressmen Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Luke Messer of Indiana.

In November of 2018, one of the brightest politicians and political thinkers of our time, Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana and now President of the Purdue Boilermakers, endorsed a plan by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue earlier that year to move two Ag agencies, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, to Kansas City. Daniels was part of a study group during the George W. Bush Administration looking at the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security. He recommended then that the new department should not be in Washington, for what he thought were obvious security reasons.

“Washington is becoming unlivable,” Daniels wrote in the Washington Post.

“Its cost of living index has exploded. Housing prices have doubled since 1988…A meal at a midrange restaurant costs half again the national average…Traffic gridlock with its attendant pollution and loss of productivity ranks with the nation’s three worst areas.”

Average commutes back and forth are more than an hour, he wrote. He did not mention streets that are so pitted they break your back and damage the undercarriage of cars, and streets and sidewalks now more congested by buses, bikes, scooters, skateboards, and pedestrians trying to dodge cars, buses, bikes, scooters, and skateboards.

Finally, last week Secretary Perdue formally announced that the two agencies are indeed moving to the Kansas City area. Makes great sense.

Kansas is a place with a lot of advantages, according to Federal News Network. The agencies’ research can be supported by the proximity of universities and research centers in Kansas City, Wichita, Columbia, St Louis, Ames, and Iowa City.

Kansas City housing prices average $205,000 versus $250,000 nationwide and a whopping $420,000 in Washington. The commute to work will save on average 20 minutes, and that is a serious under-estimate as commuters from Maryland and Virginia know all too well. Tech companies already employ 20,000 in the region. Government staff costs would be $1 million less and total savings could run $11 million a year, just for two small agencies.

The revenue savings were sweetened with $26 million in incentives offered by the region’s civic leaders. When the FBI started looking in Maryland for a new home, then DC Mayor Gray said the city would be better off without them.

Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a movement. There are compelling reasons for agency heads and Members of Congress to take government relocation seriously. When it comes to a good many government functions, having so little in common with the people whose lives and livelihood they regulate and service is a disadvantage for public employees and the citizens. And, there are a good many Federal employees already working outside DC and doing just fine.

More critically this region is unhealthy, and it isn’t just the pollution in a city where traffic gridlock has been official public policy for half-a-century. It is politically, ethically, and morally unhealthy, too. The atmosphere in the Capital is ugly, angry, strident, and at times seemingly short on values and virtue.

It is on both sides of the partisan divide, obviously aggravated by the behavior of President Trump, whose rise to power was the product of his insightful ability to exploit the ugliness and turn it into a powerful political weapon, as his adversaries are now doing. In truth, however, this nastiness has been well ingrained in and redefining the Washington political culture for years and there are few signs it will end when he is gone.

Washington’s entrenched hierarchy, not surprisingly, opposes moving the agencies out of the Capital. The trade associations, lobbyists, lawyers, unions, and the hometown media are and will continue to use their formidable clout to prevent the subdivision of their land of fruit and honey.

The Washington Post editorial writers, for example, hoisted themselves upon their high horse to lead the battle against relocation, but their defense of the status quo was awfully lame and transparent.

The move, they wrote, is just another example of Trump’s “malice” motivated by a plot to “encourage qualified scientists to leave government and stifle independent and objective research.” They didn’t explain why scientists in the Midwest or those who migrate there from here would be incapable of independent and objective research. Maybe it is the Midwestern fresh air.

Much can be blamed on Trump, but suggesting that moving two relatively small Agriculture agencies to Kansas is a diabolical plot to destroy science is a bit much. The relocation has probably never crossed his desk or his mysteriously wired mind, nor should it.

It is hard to believe that public services performed by hundreds of Federal agencies in the departments of Commerce, Housing, Interior, Transportation, Treasury, Agriculture, Energy, Education, and Health and Human Services cannot be done more productively and less expensively in Salt Lake City, Des Moines, Minneapolis, Oklahoma City, Chattanooga, Kalamazoo, Sioux Falls, Peoria, or St. Petersburg. So much of what those agencies do has nothing to do with being housed in the District of Columbia.

Obviously, there’s reason to keep Cabinet officers and leadership in the city. They need to be close to their fountain of Federal power on Pennsylvania Avenue and their money spigot on Capitol Hill, but those presidential appointees are a small minority of elite officeholders in the departments. They can stay.

The rest should get outta here.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.

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