During this week’s Democratic debates, candidates couldn’t stop talking about wealth, power and fairness. Beto O’Rourke pilloried the fairness of the tax code; Kamala Harris touted the fairness of the Equality Act; and virtually everyone, from Joe Biden to Andrew Yang, spoke about the unfairness of income inequality. Senator Elizabeth Warren probably summed up the entire two evenings when said, “I want to return to government to the people.”
If there’s a policy idea out there that “returns government to the people,” someone in this interrupting throng of 24 candidates has surely touted it. But there’s one idea that the candidates will never touch. Maybe it’s because it’s so unusual. More likely, it’s because it was recently proposed by Donald Trump.
This month, the Trump administration announced that it’s removing a chunk of the Agriculture Department from Washington, DC, to Kansas City. Starting next year, more than five hundred Washington bureaucrats (from the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture) will pack up their belongings and move out west. In a statement, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that the new location would save $300 million, and attract a more diverse staff.
Liberals see another agenda: Crippling civilian government. DC Congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton vowed to “keep this move from occurring.” The American Federation of Government Employees panned Perdue’s “clear attempt to undermine the scientific work” of the Agriculture Department. The Washington Post editorial board was only slightly more sanguine: Though there are plausible reasons to move the agency, the move is part of Trump’s broader “war on science,” designed “to encourage qualified analysts to leave government.”
But Democrats, as well as nonpartisan defenders of science and institutional integrity, may be overplaying their hand. Executed well—done gradually, and with significant buy-in—these moves could be beneficial, even politically transformative, to the communities they befall. In 2017, this magazine explored the question of what would happen if the federal government were broken up piecemeal across the country. And it turns out that a small sect of Democrats quietly believe that this idea could be a powerful method to reinvigorate American liberalism.
What’s more, Secretary Perdue has demonstrated that the idea is more than an intellectual exercise. Government relocation is a real issue, and Democrats need to define a coherent position on it. And there is good reason for that position to be full-throated (though not unqualified) support.
First, let’s acknowledge that the worriers are correct to worry: The Trump administration has laid siege to the civil service, especially its scientific agencies. And one of Trump’s favorite targets is the Agriculture Department: Top-level programs going unfilled, unfunded or privatized; or filled by malefactors, know-nothings, or both, until top talent finally leaves in disgust. Resignations have already begun at Agriculture, where Perdue has buried scientific reports and research.
Relocating part of a federal agency, though, represents a new tactic. And while perhaps the Trump administration designed the measure to weaken agencies, in the long run, they’re probably wrong. The limited research that’s available on the subject suggests it could very well do the opposite—making agencies harder to cut, and more popular in the communities they serve.
First, does relocating federal agencies have a negative impact on governing? Not necessarily, and it may well make governing more effective. The number of countries with multiple capitals is larger than you might guess, including Germany, which spreads its federal functions across three cities. Then there is the idea of proximity. Take agriculture, where the center of research and innovation has been a cluster of companies and research universities concentrated between eastern Nebraska, central Iowa and Missouri (not far from Kansas City). The highly educated and specialized staff at the Agricultural Department in Washington is one of the hidden gems of the civil service, providing an outstanding return on the taxpayer dollar. But there’s no reason to think that people in Washington possess an innate talent for managing agriculture that experts in, say, Iowa do not.
As it turns out, America’s founding architects were particularly sensitive to this question. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Framers debated which format of capital city would best suit a burgeoning republic—discussing ideas that included multiple capitals, split capitals, and capitals that moved over time. Two years later, as the First Congress debated where to build the capital, most delegates assumed it should be near the country’s geographic center. James Madison took a different view: He argued passionately that the capital city should be the center of access—located somewhere equidistant between the country’s economic and power clusters, and easier for the average citizen to bring their business.
Madison’s argument is a screaming clue about how Democrats in 2020 could take up agency relocation: A central pillar in the argument for economic fairness. About 800,000 of the Washington economy’s 3.2 million jobs are federally funded or contracted. Rep. Norton and others often cite this figure as proof that the federal government is the economic lifeblood that sustains the city. But by the same logic, many struggling American cities are missing out.
Just how much would the Agriculture Department would be “worth” to a small town? It’s hard to say. But the political geographer Vadim Rossman estimates the economic value of a city’s capital status is worth between 3 to 4 percent of its gross regional product. The Washington area’s GRP is approximately $530 billion, meaning the “DC” in “Washington, DC” is worth at least $21 billion. (The figure is almost certainly higher in the American context.)
Increasingly, Americans see a gilded capital for a gilded age; Washington is now the fifth wealthiest metro area in the country. The city’s skills—competency and specialization—the prizes to be had in a winner-take-all economy—are bound to inflame an ongoing crisis of civic trust. The effect is perfectly captured by the Washington area’s victory in attracting Amazon, a jackpot it neither needed nor deserved—and almost certainly a move meant to capitalize on the downstream benefits of working next door to the federal government. Are Washingtonians prepared to articulate to the country why they uniquely deserve such a windfall, and why Knoxville, for instance, does not?
None of this is limited to Washington, of course. The dilemma for the nation, as it watches ensconced metro regions accumulate a growing share of national wealth, has been remarked upon by many. “The old urban crisis was one of decline,” the urban theorist Richard Florida said in 2017. “Now we have a new urban crisis, which is in many ways a crisis of success.”
The electoral consequences should be obvious. As Washington becomes richer and more specialized, it becomes easier to convince voters—who can’t comprehend the invaluable work the Agriculture research divisions actually do—to annihilate all of it. For Florida, the election of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was a wake-up call. “[I]f this backlash could happen in Toronto, it could happen anywhere,” said Florida. “And of course, then came the Brexit, and the rise of Donald Trump.”
Lately, a small group of Democrats have begun to suggest that, in view of Trump’s populism, one of the simplest things we could do to inoculate voters against tall tales of a corrupt, far-away government is to put that very government in their backyard. And to fully appreciate why, you have to understand the story of Clarksburg, West Virginia—perhaps the only time the experiment was attempted at scale.
In 1995, the FBI’s fingerprinting unit—called the Criminal Justice Information Services Division—was relocated from Washington to Clarksburg, population 17,000. The town was chosen by Senator Robert Byrd, who was looking to score some serious pork for his state. Over a few years, 3,000 federal workers and 400 contractors moved to the sleepy off-ramp on I-79.
It turns out that Byrd had the right idea. After a decade, once-vacant Clarksburg became pretty much unrecognizable. Today it’s a prominent east coast biometrics hub that’s attracted a dozen companies. Early on, the FBI struck an agreement with West Virginia University, agreeing to funnel young engineers into well-paying jobs. The median household income rose 58 percent from 2000 to 2017, vastly outpacing the growth rate for the state of West Virginia.
Then there was the rejuvenation of civic capital. FBI leaders became stalwarts at the local Rotary Club, while the town feted the staff at the local motocross track. The FBI let the town locals hunt turkey on government property. The result was a town more immune to Tea Party banshee cries against Big Government: After all, “Big Government” was Clarksburg’s biggest employer now—and also their friends, their wives, hunting partners and neighbors. Jamie Metz, who directs the county’s Development Corporation, told me, “I know West Virginia and rural states have a reputation of people who are anti-government,” but added, “I never hear anything negative from this community. Never.”
David Fontana, a law professor at George Washington, is the country’s leading liberal advocate for agency relocation. He agrees that Perdue’s proposal is a disaster—dictating that employees move on a short time frame, or risk being fired. A more responsible method would phase the transition slowly, as in the case of Clarksburg, or create financial incentives for employees to make the move and retain top talent.
But the bigger disaster, Fontana complained, is that the Trump administration has tainted something worth taking seriously. “A very good idea, with wonderful historical roots and current logic behind it,” Fontana told me, “has been made into something that’s just a pro- or anti-Trump thing.” The idea enjoys a long history, he says, especially in the progressive effort to thwart Big Business. Many state capitals were placed in areas meant to increase citizen access, and avoid the wealth clusters of big railroad conglomerates—one of the reasons that so many state capitals are often in the middle of nowhere.
Fontana is careful to acknowledge that agency relocation is not charity—nor is it a national jobs program to move educated federal workers into towns, like Clarksburg, that badly need them. Instead, Fontana’s view is that power is like a national resource, something to be distributed equitably. For conservatives, he makes the argument that distance could rightly be viewed as a kind of tax—discouraging the best and brightest from uprooting their lives, and privileging a few residents of the DMV by dint of their proximity.
Some Democrats have already gotten on board. Supporters now include Congressmen and Presidential candidate Tim Ryan, as well as Congressman Ro Khanna, who co-chairs Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. (“There is a lot of wisdom outside the Beltway,” Khanna told the LA Times.) But by and large, when Fontana tries to explain the idea, he gets cross-eyed looks. Some people don’t see the point. But others cloak their antagonism in thinly-veiled elitism: “They think that some places suck, and just don’t deserve this,” Fontana recounted. What Washingtonians are really afraid of, perhaps, are exactly the atavisms the Democratic Party is campaigning against: enjoying the national stock of influence—not all of it undeserved—that attracts mega-corporations like Amazon in the first place.
What if the next president took a cue from Jeff Bezos? Imagine if a flagging Democratic candidate announced his plan to conduct a reverse-Amazon: A 50-state, nationwide bidding competition for each of the major federal agencies. Instead of showering largesse on giant companies, small towns could win a truckload of educated federal workers, and the economic and civic benefits that come with it—all without having to cough up bankrupting tax incentives, or make soul-deadening promises to rename the town. Small-city America could enjoy an economic boost and keep its dignity. Few things would convey the sheer value and worth of government work—or the hollowness of conservative talking points, as voters watch Republicans tongue-twist themselves into explaining why, after trashing government for decades, they’re suddenly in favor of bringing a lucrative government agency into their home state, and recouping the benefits.
This idea deserves a name: Call it access equity. If Democrats are willing to talk about wealth and gender fairness, they should be willing to talk about place-based fairness of access, too. Rather than offering cheap talk about cleaning up Washington, or restoring government to the people, they could give voters something better: A plan to give it back to them.