The Washington, D.C., area is already rich and overcrowded, and with the arrival of Amazon.com Inc.’s second headquarters it’s about to get thousands more high-paying jobs. Lots of other metropolitan areas, especially in the middle of the country, are less rich and less crowded. So why not move some good government jobs out of Washington?
Cult Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang is all for it. From his campaign website: “Federal agencies that aren’t directly tied to general government activities (e.g., the NIH) should be relocated to different areas throughout the country to provide a boost to local economies and tie the rest of the country to the federal government.” Vox.com’s Matthew Yglesias made the same argument in a much-discussed 2016 opinion piece that clearly inspired Yang, given that both recommend that the first agency to move should be the National Institutes of Health, to Cleveland.
It’s not just people whose names begin with Y that think this might be a good idea. Moving federal agencies out of Washington has been endorsed by renowned urbanist Richard Florida, proposed in legislation by conservative Ohio Congressman Warren Davidson, and to some extent put into effect in past decades by the late West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.
So why is the U.S. Department of Agriculture getting so much blowback over the decision to move its Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture from Washington to Kansas City? (The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management is also moving its headquarters to Colorado, but that involves fewer jobs and has occasioned less protest.)
Clearly, some of it has to do with the way the Trump administration has handled things. For example:
Employees were given only 30 days to decide whether to move or lose their jobs, with the USDA reversing earlier commitments to give them several months. The USDA claimed that the move would save $300 million over 15 years, but an independent analysis concluded that it would actually increase costs by $83 million to $182 million over that period. The USDA’s inspector general has cautioned that the relocation may be illegal without Congressional approval. White House Office of Management and Budget Director and Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney has crowed that the real goal of the move was to spur people to quit and thus “streamline government.”
Even the best-intended, best-planned agency move would occasion lots of grumbling, though. In the Netherlands, where the government decided in the 1960s that spreading government agencies around the country would be a good way to combat (1) housing shortages in and around The Hague and (2) joblessness in the country’s eastern regions, the process took decades and was accompanied by much protest and backpedaling. The highest-profile move of all, that of the postal and telecom service to Groningen in the country’s northeastern corner, ended up being largely reversed after the agency was privatized (PostNL NV is now headquartered in The Hague and Koninklijke KPN NV, the telco, is in nearby Rotterdam). All this in a country where the spread-the-government plan had the support of all major political parties, and no city is more than three hours by train from The Hague.
On the face of it, moving the USDA agencies to Kansas City seems like a good match. The ERS gathers data and publishes reports on crops and other agriculture-related topics, and the National Institute of Agriculture makes research grants. Kansas City is a big, vibrant metropolitan area with lots of well-educated people that’s close to major farming regions and land-grant universities with good agricultural-science departments. It also has a median house price of $227,000, according to the National Association of Realtors, compared with $456,500 for the D.C. area. There are surely lots of talented agricultural economists and grant-making experts who would not find living in Kansas City to be an unbearable hardship. Their spouses and partners do have more good jobs to choose from in the D.C. area, which is one of the factors that has helped concentrate good jobs in a limited number of metropolitan areas in recent decades, but a broad, coordinated government effort to bring more agencies there might help with that.
What we’re witnessing now is not a broad, coordinated effort. It’s another slapdash move by an administration that has made bumbling bad faith a trademark. Spreading more government agencies around the country is a policy that could attract bipartisan support and lots of expert assistance. Those are two things that Donald Trump isn’t interested in or capable of attracting, but maybe somebody else could make it work.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business.