By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010; B01
Americans are angry at Washington, and it's not hard to see why. Not only does the federal government seem more ineffectual than ever in the face of ongoing economic hardship, but the capital has so far coasted through the downturn relatively unscathed.
The unemployment rate in metro Washington is 6 percent, well below the national average of 9.5 percent, and Virginia and Maryland have two of the three highest job-creation rates in the country. Meanwhile, the region is siphoning off many of America's brightest workers: The nation's five most educated counties, judging by the percentage of residents with college degrees, are all in metro Washington. The area's prosperity gap with the rest of the country is increasingly glaring -- particularly if you're sitting in Michigan or Rhode Island or Nevada.
But instead of just ranting about Washington -- or running against it, for those on the hustings -- how about breaking it up? It's an admittedly improbable idea, given the universal instinct for self-preservation, but with Washington burgeoning in a time of general economic gloom, why not address the imbalance by dispersing the government more broadly? Such a move would spread more evenly the benefits of federal employment (and its contractor hangers-on). It would make the federal bureaucracy more attuned to regional issues. And it just might help dissipate some of the anti-Washington venom that's coursing through the country.
Splintering the federal government holds both political benefits for the country and economic benefits for the regions to which jobs are dispersed, said Robert Rupp, a political scientist at West Virginia Wesleyan College -- and a resident of a state that has enjoyed a very targeted form of federal job relocation, thanks to the late senator Robert Byrd. "If we begin with the fact that Washington has grown far bigger than the founders ever contemplated, and that voters are mean and mad and distrustful of Beltway politics, it makes sense," he said.
Already, the federal government is less clustered on the Potomac than many think. Eighty-three percent of its 1.9 million civilian employees (not counting postal workers) are outside metro Washington, from Homeland Security agents at borders and in airports to rangers in national parks to NASA engineers in Houston. The country's federalist system further distributes public jobs outside Washington, to the 50 state governments.
But Washington's share looks bigger if you don't include civilian military and Veterans Affairs workers, who are scattered at bases and hospitals across the country. Of the remaining federal employees, a quarter are in this region. Metro Washington has more federal workers than New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami and Seattle combined.
Exacerbating the imbalance is the massive growth of the national security apparatus since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, much of it concentrated among private contractors. As The Washington Post reported in a three-part series last week, a good deal of this expansion has occurred in metro Washington, where 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work have been started or finished since the attacks, occupying nearly as much space as three Pentagons. All told, the government added 13,000 employees in the Washington area last year -- and George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis predicts that the region will add 6,500 federal jobs in each of the next few years.
The contrast wasn't always so stark. Although Washington's federal employment base has long insulated it against downturns, other regions grew more quickly in boom years. But for the past decade, the metro area's growth has surpassed that in the rest of the country in good times and bad. It's leading the charge with biotech jobs on the I-270 corridor (convenient to the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration) and defense, intelligence and IT jobs clustered around the Pentagon and the CIA in Northern Virginia. Since 2000, home prices in the region have gone up 78 percent, more than in any other city. Six of the country's 10 wealthiest counties are in metro Washington.
To some degree, the region's primacy is to be expected. All capital cities accrue mass, and countless jobs -- legislative aides, presidential staff and military brass among them -- belong at the seat of government. But of the work that is justified, plenty could be done just as well in Buffalo or Topeka, where the cost of living is lower, where people could get to work without adding to the crush on the Beltway and on Metro, and where their presence might encourage a less us-versus-them attitude toward the federal government.
Take the Health and Human Services Department, which is more concentrated in Washington than many other departments, with nearly half of its 64,000 employees in the metro area. If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can thrive in Atlanta, why can't some of the NIH or the FDA make a go of it in, say, St. Louis or Cleveland, cities with strong biomedical sectors?
Last year, the Health Resources and Services Administration brought on 134 people at its Rockville headquarters to oversee $2.5 billion in stimulus spending. Could it have had those people work somewhere else instead? The new health-care law will require still more bureaucracy -- do all of those jobs have to be in Washington? Could they be in Texas, the state with the highest rate of uninsured people? Or Baltimore, a city with affordable real estate that is a short train ride to Washington? (Already, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are based there.)
Or take the Consumer Financial Protection Agency created by the new regulatory overhaul. Why not put it in Charlotte, the banking hub hit so hard by the crash -- or in one of the Sunbelt states or Rust Belt cities where unscrupulous lenders did the most damage?
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?