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Moving the Swamp Out of Washington Won’t Help Flyover County

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 [1], Luke Messer [2], Warren Davidson [3], and Joni Ernst [4] 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 [5] 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 [6] 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 [7]). 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 [8] 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 [9], to the dismay of some Central and Eastern European countries, which still can’t claim any agencies (how unfair! [10]):

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.

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That similar bidding wars could happen in the U.S. is already becoming evident [5]: 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 [11]. “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 [12]—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 [13] 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 [14] from their fellow citizens in Belgium.

In his inauguration speech, President Donald Trump pointed out [15]:

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.

Kai Weiss is a Research Fellow at the Austrian Economics Center [16] and a board member of the Hayek Institute [17].

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Moving the Swamp Out of Washington Won’t Help Flyover County"

#1 Comment By public servants On April 15, 2018 @ 10:36 pm

“What will stop BLM employees with six-figure incomes—just look at DC’s vastly different economic zones to see how the two worlds co-exist live there. There is no reason to expect this to change simply because the bureaucrats move to a town in the Midwest.”

This begs the question as to why Federal employees are making six figure salaries. Government work is not supposed to be well-paid. Government workers are supposed to be trading good pay for security and a pension, things that no private sector employees have any more.

They’re supposed to be public servants. Not rich parasites. Anybody making six figures is a rich guy in my book.

#2 Comment By Xenia Grant On April 15, 2018 @ 11:15 pm

Sen. Gardner is a Republican from Colorado, not a Democrat.

#3 Comment By Conewago On April 16, 2018 @ 8:54 am

We must resist this invasion just as General Lee resisted a federal invasion of his home.

#4 Comment By Rosita On April 16, 2018 @ 9:43 am

There are many good and decent and Patriotic Americans who work for the federal government in D.C. I am amazed that I even have to say this.

#5 Comment By JeffK On April 16, 2018 @ 11:45 am

I disagree that moving jobs Federal jobs to flyover country won’t work. Good workers in flyover country that work for reasonable wages are much easier to find than what you can find in the DC, MD, or VA areas for the same pay.

The FBI did it with its finger print processing facility in WV. This facility does real work that benefits the country. Here is where they process fingerprints in West Virginia.

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Contrast that with the make-work Drug Intelligence Center that John Murtha brought to Johnstown PA. It was criticized even before it was opened. It closed after he died.

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#6 Comment By Matt D. On April 16, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

Exceptionally weak article. It makes vague statements about the negative effects of the proposed policy without backing them up with one single number–not even an opinion poll! It does not even seem as if the author’s claims are consistent with any knd of coherent underlying theory. The best documented complaint, congestion in Brussels, is actually a rock-solid argument in FAVOR of the policy, if you just take half a minute to think about it.

There might be some truth underlying whatever the author is trying to say, but I don’t see any of it in the current article. Would be happy to come back and read a coherent, welk-supported argument if the author would like to present one in the future.

#7 Comment By Kent On April 16, 2018 @ 4:23 pm

public servants commented:

“This begs the question as to why Federal employees are making six figure salaries. Government work is not supposed to be well-paid. Government workers are supposed to be trading good pay for security and a pension, things that no private sector employees have any more.”

I am not a federal government employee, but I’ve heard a few different things:

1. Those kinds of salaries exist but only among the top echelon of management.

2. The massive growth in pay for military officers.

3. The federal government outsources a lot of lower level work, so the remaining people on average make more money. Think lots of attorneys, very few janitors.

Probably all true to some extent. If you want to see real money, it is in federal contractors. I have a relative who works for Lockheed on the F-35. His Christmas bonus is in the 6 figures. And that comes from our taxes just like any federal employee.

#8 Comment By Hypnos On April 16, 2018 @ 5:44 pm

Gov’t employees with basic qualifications are better compensated than their private sector counterparts, but the opposite is true at the other end of the spectrum. One study:

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If I were to speculate as to why, there are high demands on passing background checks which raise the floor on salaries at the low end, and downward pressure put on executive and scientific salaries by the Congressional and White House salaries.

Most people of ability find their way into the defense contractors, who themselves are losing the recruiting wars to the tech giant and financial sector for top talent.

#9 Comment By Olivier On April 16, 2018 @ 8:32 pm

A danger of such a relocation plan is that the number of agencies will increase until each state can have at least one. In the Senate all states have equal representation and thus the lobbying can be fiercer than in the EU, where small countries are more easily overruled.

#10 Comment By dcm On April 16, 2018 @ 10:02 pm

The vast majority of federal employees live nowhere near Washington. Does the author not know this?

#11 Comment By Frank On April 17, 2018 @ 8:58 am

I’m pretty sure that those “six figure salaries” are because of the locality pay differentials. A GS9 will not be making six figures in Kansas. I don’t think they make that in DC either. Talk about hyperbole.

#12 Comment By Ryan W On April 17, 2018 @ 9:23 am

Not being American, I might be a little hazy on some of my details, but as I understand, I believe the vast majority of public servants in America (as here in Canada) are middle to upper-middle class. So I doubt that having a single government department in a mid-sized city would have the dramatic effects the author talks about. However, it would mean that there would be a large number of middle-class government employees with incomes largely unaffected by economic cycles spending money in the local economy. The author’s major examples (Brussels, Strassburg) are cases where a vast administrative machinery moves into a city, essentially taking it over. I don’t think the analogy is transferable to just one government department moving into town.

That said, I don’t think moving agencies is an answer to concerns about “the swamp”. I don’t think it will have a large impact either way. But I think it can have a small but positive effect on local economies.

#13 Comment By David Walters On April 17, 2018 @ 9:31 am

Breaking up criminal gangs, even if by dispersing them, is always a positive thing.

Disperse the bureaucrats.

#14 Comment By Patricus On April 17, 2018 @ 12:51 pm

$100,000 per year is a handsome income in many parts of the country. In the DC area that income means one lives in an apartment, not a house, and a pretty long commute from the government jobs. No Lexus or Mercedes in this group, maybe a five year old Camry.

The area has the highest percentage of two income households. A GS 15 and GS 14 couple can do pretty well. Over decades government/military salaries and other compensation steadily improved while the private sector languished. There was a steady grade inflation. We have more generals today than in WW II when there were ten times more men under arms. GS 15s were once rather rare and one typically reached that point when hair was fully grey or white and only after moving around the country. Today there are multitudes of 28 year old GS 15s.

Many government and military workers are dedicated and hard working. It is not their fault the system is rotten. I think the majority know very well what goes on. Dispersing these workers won’t help. They should be culled in large numbers. The good ones will find useful things to do in the private sector.

#15 Comment By Thrice A Viking On April 17, 2018 @ 5:40 pm

If there is indeed this “two-layered society” between government employees and the rest of society”, wouldn’t making it manifest across the country increase calls to bridge the divide? I would certainly think so. And I would also think that such public resistance is a good thing, at least if successful.

However, I’m more inclined to think that the two-tier society already exists, and it’s between rich people – of whatever provenance their wealth may be – and the rest of us. And the rest of us would most certainly include the lower-paid government employees. Opulent gated communities are not exclusive to the DC area.

#16 Comment By Thrice A Viking On April 18, 2018 @ 1:18 am

I do agree, however, that dispersing bureaucrats isn’t getting at the real problem.