The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Get Washington out of Washington. Put it in Omaha.

The U.S. Treasury Department building in Washington.
The U.S. Treasury Department building in Washington. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
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An earlier version of this column did not note that the writer’s university is among those interested in hosting Agriculture Department subagency headquarters.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced in August that he wanted to move the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of Washington , to places where the type of scholarship they rely on is centered. Now the department is considering proposals submitted by interested parties (including my university) to host the headquarters for those subagencies.

You might assume that such a move would be regarded as a common-sense exercise in sound administrative and academic practice. But you would be wrong — at least in the eyes of the client organizations that seek funding from these mini-bureaucracies. Their protests came promptly and loudly after Perdue’s announcement. 

The Housing Assistance Council complained that moving the Economic Research Service away from Washington “is yet another way rural voices will be out of earshot.” The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition wrote that the plan meant “America would experience a disastrous reduction in its agricultural research capacity.” You’d have thought someone had suggested moving the Washington Monument.

But what exactly is so unthinkable, especially these days, about dispersing more of the federal government’s sprawling assets somewhere into the 99.998 percent of America’s land mass that isn’t the District of Columbia? The Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture together comprise less than 1 percent of total Agriculture Department employees, a large majority of whom already work elsewhere in the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the more respected and effective federal agencies, is headquartered in Atlanta.

The idea of getting Washington out of Washington has come up periodically for decades. In 2002, I was part of a small group in the George W. Bush administration assigned to study whether the government’s various units with a relationship to what came to be called “homeland security” should be gathered together in a new Cabinet-level department. Ultimately, President Bush decided that taking this step would be wise, and he commissioned a draft of the necessary legislation.

I proposed locating the new agency anywhere but D.C., for what seemed to me some highly logical reasons:

First, given that the Department of Homeland Security would make an attractive terrorist target, prudence would dictate not placing it immediately adjacent to Washington’s many existing targets. 

Second, technology has rendered distance and physical place less important than ever. Enterprises of all kinds now operate perfectly well across multiple locations as data moves instantly, and teleconferencing has advanced to a “same room” feel.

Third, locating DHS somewhere other than Washington would have made much better economic sense. Under the government’s statutory geographic compensation formula, the savings in salary and benefits alone would have been significant, to say nothing of other operating expenses. A GS-13 Step 2 employee who is paid $100,203 in Washington would cost less than $91,000 in Kansas City or Indianapolis.

You can guess how far the idea got. The chemical weight of lead is insufficient to describe that particular balloon. The idea might have seemed far-fetched back then, but it should be less so today.

Washington is becoming unlivable. Its cost-of-living index has exploded: Housing prices have doubled since 1988 and are up a third just since the end of the recession. A meal at a midrange restaurant costs almost half again above the national average.

Commutes have stretched to Seattle or Silicon Valley dimensions. Traffic gridlock, with its attendant pollution and lost productivity, ranks with the nation’s three worst areas. Average commutes exceed an hour a day. Waldorf, Md., has the nation’s longest average, at 43 minutes each way.

Leaving aside all the security and administrative advantages, relocating bureaucracies can offer important intangible pluses. Parts of the nation now estranged from the federal government — and cynical about it — might feel more invested and sympathetic if more of its officials were seen as neighbors and not as faraway, arrogant paper-pushers.

And federal workers themselves might benefit, not only from quality-of-life improvements but also from a perspective on their work enriched by closer exposure to its real-world consequences. Might there not be at least a little logic in having, say, the Interior Department located somewhere in the country’s . . . interior? The USDA’s Economic Research Service near some actual farmers?

Then again, the idea of relocating federal bureaucracies could be one of those sensible choices that Washington finds simply unthinkable, such as reforming Social Security before it implodes.

Maybe it’s just as well. A friend recalls a lighthearted moment in the Senate chamber in the 1980s, during an especially pompous and boring oration, when someone in the back suggested moving the capital to Omaha. Sen. Robert Dole, always ready with a quip, replied: “What have you got against Omaha?”

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