Nearly all of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management’s employees are based outside the nation’s capital.

So why are agency leaders pushing for more to leave Washington to set up a new headquarters in Colorado?

Is it bureaucratic efficiency or an efficient way to cull federal employees and shrink the government?

These issues were raised Tuesday by skeptical Democrats and supportive Republicans at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing. Many Democrats were just as skeptical after responses from William Perry Pendley, the bureau’s deputy director for policy and programs, while Republicans welcomed his answers to their leading and sympathetic questions.

Pendley acknowledged that 97 percent of the bureau’s employees already work away from the District. But apparently that is not enough for the Trump administration. Relocating hundreds more would result in “a number of significant benefits,” he said, “ranging from more informed decision-making to increased efficiency and coordination. This realignment is an important undertaking that is long overdue.”

A total of 550 positions were evaluated for a possible move to the western United States, where most of the agency action is. Of that, 222 employees “currently performing headquarters duties” would continue that work, he said, while based throughout “BLM’s western regions and landscapes in order to optimize the BLM’s presence where the needs are greatest.” An additional 74 would work in state offices.

Twenty-seven others, including the agency’s director, deputy director of operations and assistant directors, would establish a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo. Some positions, such as the agency’s congressional staff, would remain in Washington.

“Today, the BLM faces a stark choice,” Pendley told the committee. “Either it must relocate most of its positions and personnel to state offices and a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colorado, or it must consolidate into limited and costly space in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.”

The costly space in Washington is $50 per square foot, compared with $32.35 in Grand Junction, he said. There also would be lower travel expenses and personnel costs.

But Democrats see a hidden, more sinister message.

“This proposal is a continuation of the Trump administration’s effort to ‘drain the swamp,’ which in reality is an attempt to push out career employees and weaken federal agencies,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.). “This is a dangerous move: one that not only disrespects federal employees and their dedication to public service, but also threatens to rid federal agencies of institutional knowledge and devoted civil servants.”

That’s not just the talk of a partisan critic. Tonko’s comments follow those by President Trump’s top manager, Mick Mulvaney. He’s Trump’s acting chief of staff and director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. 

“It’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker,” Mulvaney told a South Carolina Republican gathering last month. “I know that because a lot of them work for me, and I’ve tried. . . . By simply saying to people, ‘You know what, we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, D.C., and move you out in the real part of the country,’ and they quit — what a wonderful way to sort of streamline government, and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”

Many did quit the Agriculture Department after it announced plans to move two agencies to the Kansas City, Mo., area. Almost 60 percent of the USDA Economic Research Service and more than two-thirds of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture refused their reassignments, according to department information released in July.

Rather than “a wonderful way to . . . streamline government,” this represents a loss of talent and institutional knowledge that could harm service to the public for years to come. 

Representing the District, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has good reason to keep the workforce in town. On Monday, she announced plans for legislation that would require congressional approval for the relocation of federal agency headquarters outside of the National Capital Region, which includes Washington and suburban areas. 

“I have already gotten some language in appropriations bills to deter politically motivated moves outside the nation’s capital,” she said. “These unprecedented moves are not about saving taxpayer money and usually have origins in inaccurate political talking points. In the 1990s, the BLM moved its wildfire staff out West, only to move them back when Congress demanded briefings on new wildfires.”

The plan to move even more of the bureau from Washington drew strong opposition at the hearing from the Public Lands Foundation, a nonprofit organization composed mostly of retired agency employees.

“While the BLM has encountered several calls for reorganization over more than seven decades, none has raised as much concern for us as this one,” said Ed Shepard, president of the foundation. “We believe this plan would require the BLM to serve the short-term wants of locally powerful stakeholders to the detriment of all other constituents and the long-term needs of the public lands. The breakup of the Washington office structure would ensure the BLM promotes parochial, local interests, rather than the national interest.”

The result of the move, Shepard added, “would functionally dismantle the BLM.”