Page 2 of 2   <      

The case for breaking up Washington -- and scattering government across America

There is a precedent for this approach. Robert Byrd and Jack Murtha, two veteran Democratic lawmakers who died in recent months, owed their longevity in Congress partly to their ability to steer federal jobs and contracts to West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania, respectively. Byrd's successes included an IRS center in Martinsburg that employs 1,180, an FBI fingerprint-analysis center in Clarksburg that employs 2,500 and, most remarkably, a Coast Guard facility in landlocked Kearneysville that employs 550. Murtha's successes included the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, with 300 employees.

These outposts bear the marks of pork, but they also reflect economic logic: They carry out support tasks that can be done just about anywhere, and they provide jobs in places that could use a boost.

It's worth noting that putting federal facilities outside the Beltway does not necessarily erase all anti-government vitriol in those places -- see the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building and the airplane attack against an IRS office in Texas last year. But research suggests that in general, communities with a larger share of public employment are more likely to support government. Pennsylvania Democrat Mark Critz, for instance, won the election to replace Murtha, despite his district's conservative tilt, by making a forthright case for the federal government's role.

Others argue that reliance on federal jobs and largesse ultimately undermines communities by stifling private-sector growth. "Dumping government money here hasn't made West Virginia rich," said Russell Sobel, an economist at West Virginia University. "There's no question certain individuals benefit from it, but it's a question of overall prosperity."

But as the battles to prevent military base closures around the country suggest, most communities hardly see government jobs as a threat to their prosperity. A more widely shared concern about dispersing federal jobs is the impact on the government's productivity. Proximity has its virtues, even in the age of videoconferences and e-mail. And far-flung outposts can suffer from a lack of supervision -- it was Colorado and Louisiana branches of the Minerals Management Service that were recently implicated in scandals involving drug use, prostitution and fraternizing with energy industry officials.

"If you think of the federal government as a major corporation, how is it most efficient?" said George Mason economist John McClain. "Would it be as efficient if you distributed some of the functions around the country?"

Depends on how you do it. The government is already allowing some dispersal via liberalized telecommuting, led by the Patent and Trademark Office, which lets employees work anywhere, as long as they occasionally visit the Alexandria headquarters. The Brookings Institution's Bruce Katz said dispersal could improve productivity if the government's existing regional offices were empowered to serve their constituents in an integrated way, with coordination among agencies, "rather than just be the end of the pipeline for Washington-driven agency decisions that are siloed and compartmentalized."

The key, Katz said, would be to focus less on moving a given unit of the government to a given place and more on creating "networks of federally supported institutions" such as "energy discovery institutes" or metropolitan planning organizations. For instance, he said, "Kansas City shouldn't care if it gets a particular agency to relocate to its metropolis; rather, it should seek to have an advanced research institution -- either standalone or at the metro university -- that relates to its particular clusters and economic position."

Katz's colleague Amy Liu goes a step further: Many corporations, she notes, have moved away from the headquarters model to one in which executives are stationed in one city, research and development in another, marketing in a third and so on. Why not distribute federal tasks in a similar way?

McClain worries that the government could lose the high-caliber labor force it has attracted to Washington, if employees did not follow federal jobs elsewhere. But on the other side of the equation is the toll that the region's conspicuous success is taking on the country as a whole. If Washington were also America's cultural and financial capital, a la London, Paris or Tokyo, it might be another matter -- its outsize sway would be ingrained and expected, and many Americans would accept and even celebrate its primacy.

But since New York is the country's media and cultural center (with an assist from Los Angeles), Washington's ascent has produced resentment -- it is the capital for the pursuits we take less pleasure in (vote-chasing, taxing, lobbying), its image undiluted by distractions such as the Oscars or New Year's Eve in Times Square.

That resentment isn't good for the country, and it can't be good for its capital. For the Washington region, surrendering some of its disproportionate share of employment growth might mean gaining a few ticks on its jobless rate and losing some of the millions in taxpayer dollars flowing through its housing market. It might also mean fewer new subdivisions in the exurbs, fewer glass office cubes on the Dulles Corridor, and fewer SUVs with tinted windows jamming the Beltway.

And it might mean having a bit more in common with the rest of the country it leads. Would that be such a loss?

Alec MacGillis writes about domestic policy for The Washington Post. He will be online Monday, July 26, at noon ET to chat. Submit your questions before or during the discussion.

<       2

© 2010 The Washington Post Company