Draining the Washington swamp was supposed to be one of the main objectives of Donald Trump’s presidency. Since this goal’s success is nowhere in sight, a new idea has gained steam instead: don’t drain the swamp; move federal agencies out of D.C. to the countryside.
This proposal has garnered attention in both conservative as well as progressive circles. Republicans especially have jumped on the bandwagon, with Jason Chaffetz, Luke Messer, Warren Davidson, and Joni Ernst supporting the idea. Messer and Ernst have co-sponsored the SWAMP Act—the “Strategic Withdrawal of Agencies for Meaningful Placement” (of course). And Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is already working on moving three federal agencies out of Washington.
Justifications for this exodus seem to be plentiful. Wouldn’t it be great to have government closer to its citizens, rather than in the political morass of Washington? Wouldn’t it bring new income opportunities to economically suffering areas, particularly Midwestern cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, and rural communities long left behind by the new economy and globalization? Just watch this promotional video produced by Vox; how can you not be in favor of such a development?
But relocating government agencies around the country would have adverse effects and unintended consequences. Rather than destroying the swamp and and bringing the federal government and its citizenry closer together, many new swamps would spring forth. Rather than reducing income inequality, the two-layered society between government workers and the rest of the population would become more evident. And rather than revitalize communities, it would destroy them even faster.
Look no further than to Europe. The European Union has 40 agencies in total, and those are spread across the continent (see a map here). But the outcomes haven’t been as happy as those in the Vox video.
Instead, spreading around European agencies has simply made the divide between civil society and politicians more apparent, and has created ill incentives that are oftentimes disgusting to watch. Example: Due to the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, the two agencies situated in Britain—the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority—had to leave their home as well. Immediately a huge battle between European cities ensued as to who should get those institutions.
As Politico wrote back in November when the decision was made: “Brussels wanted to keep the race for Brexit’s biggest spoils from turning into a feeding-frenzy for self-interested member countries. It failed.” Instead, political gaming dominated the decision-making process, which ultimately saw Paris and Amsterdam arise as winners, to the dismay of some Central and Eastern European countries, which still can’t claim any agencies (how unfair!):
The race to host the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority has turned—as with so many such high-profile decisions in the EU—into a political bazaar, where favors, money and jobs are traded. Diplomats don’t want to spoil their sweetheart deals by being too explicit, but proffered gifts range from NATO troops to support for Eurogroup presidency bids.
That similar bidding wars could happen in the U.S. is already becoming evident: the Department for Transportation, for instance, may end up going to Los Angeles to calm down Democrats who are opposed to the idea. Senator Corey Gardner and Governor John Hickenlooper, both Democrats from Colorado, have joined forces in a bipartisan effort to lure the Bureau of Land Management to their state.
Meanwhile, European citizens where these agencies are situation don’t seem so thrilled. Unaccountable bureaucrats working for the agencies (or as they are also known in the EU, Eurocrats) are often seen as a privileged class invading their own hometown. While supporters of the relocation think agencies will move to these places and bring jobs and new people all of whom will fully integrate into society, reality has been much different.
In Brussels for instance, residents aren’t very happy with the EU officials sharing their space. Traffic jams and pollution have risen dramatically in the capital of Belgium, which has become a “non-stop building site for the last fifty years,” as one campaigner of a residents’ association said. “They want to create a nice environment for the EU institutions but the end result is they spoil it for everyone and confirm the citizens’ view of them as out of touch and deaf to our concerns.”
As seen in cities like Brussels or Strasbourg the location of these government organizations has created a divide. And as someone who has lived extensively in both Brussels and Strasbourg within the world of the Eurocrats, I can confirm the segmentation exists. In my time in Brussels I rarely spoke with anyone from Belgium; in Strasbourg those few I spoke with had a deep aversion to the employees of the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, the two organizations situated there.
Meanwhile, it is rather doubtful that the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has had much of a positive effect on Dublin, or the European Food Safety Authority on Parma. And while the European Central Bank is surely making headlines for Frankfurt, it doesn’t seem like the employees working there realize how they are harming their fellow citizens with the Bank’s excessive monetary policy—despite the fact they don’t live in a bubble, but in the middle of the populace.
Similar phenomena are to be expected in the States. The question needs to be put forward what would happen if, for example, the Bureau of Land Management were to move to Denver: What will stop BLM employees with six-figure incomes from segregating themselves—just look at DC’s vastly different economic zones to see how the two worlds “co-exist” there. There is no reason to expect this to change simply because the bureaucrats move to a town in the Midwest.
Similarly, it’s not clear how many locals the BLM would hire anyway, or how much they would breathe life into the local economy. Perhaps BLM employees would create a bubble of their own in already thriving suburbs, and if anything, cause traffic jams—or demand better transportation systems on the taxpayers dime, as EU officials currently demand from their fellow citizens in Belgium.
In his inauguration speech, President Donald Trump pointed out:
Washington flourished—but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered—but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
It is absolutely correct that people in many parts of the U.S. have been left behind over the last several decades. It is absolutely correct that a revitalization of local communities is sorely needed. But this will not happen through politics. To spread the toxic effects of government throughout the country would have consequences that none of those advocating for localism want. The swamp should truly be drained—not just relocated.