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July 26, 2010

12:04
P.M.

Outlook: Breaking up Washington

Total Responses: 44

About the hosts

About the host

Host: Alec MacGillis

Alec MacGillis

Alec MacGillis writes about domestic policy for The Washington Post.

About the topic

Washington Post staff writer Alec MacGillis will be online Monday, July 26, at Noon ET to discuss his Outlook article titled "The case for breaking up Washington -- and scattering government across America."
Q.

Breaking up Washington

Doesn't the fact that 83% of federal jobs are already outside DC undermine your argument for "breaking up Washington"? In effect, it's already happened, hasn't it?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

Hello everyone, and thanks for joining me here today to discuss yesterday's piece, making the case for breaking up the federal government in Washington and scattering more of it around the country. This question raises the most obvious counter: 83 percent of federal employees already work outside D.C. But here's the thing -- that proportion drops to only 75 percent if you subtract out military civilians and Veterans Admin staff, who are naturally scattered at bases and hospitals around the country. Fully 25 percent of all remaining federal employees are in metro Washington -- more than many of the biggest cities in the country put together. And that doesn't even begin to count all the federal contractors clustered here.

– July 26, 2010 12:08 PM
Q.

Bureaucratic Lunacy

Interesting article. Just wondered: Will the POST continue to highlight the absolute lunacy of what is happening with the expansion of government in the DC area: "...33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work have been started or finished since the attacks, occupying nearly as much space as three Pentagons"? The "terrorists" have "won" already: our spineless bureaucrats are spending us into bankruptcy.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

This is, of course, the subject of the terrific three-part series that the Post ran last week looking at the expansion of the national security-counterterrorism apparatus since 9/11. The series appeared after I'd begun working on my piece about the disproportionate growth of government and contracting in the Washington area, but it only further buttressed my basic argument -- that there is a growing economic disconnect between metro Washington and the rest of the country.  My piece argues that that gap could be mitigated by dispersing more functions around the country, but one could also make the case that much of the government/contracting growth in metro DC, especially in the national security apparatus, could simply be pared back, period, not scattered around more broadly. I expect that Dana Priest and Bill Arkin, the authors of the series, will be following up on their findings in the coming year, making sure that policy makers are taking it to heart and acting on it.

– July 26, 2010 12:12 PM
Q.

Splendid Idea

There's simply too much communication and close coordination between the various bureaus and branches of the U.S. government. This government is way too efficient. What we need is a Justice Dept based in Cleveland, and the FBI HQ in San Diego. Also, the House should be in Mobile, Ala. while the Senate should be in St. Paul, Minn. Forget the subway running under the Capitol, we'll need a bullet train. Brilliant idea!
A.
Alec MacGillis :

What subtle sarcasm! But I get your point -- if the government is already too silo-ed and compartmentalized now, why make the problem even worse by scattering it around the country? This is a good point, and in fact, the Obama administration is trying hard to get better coordination among agencies. But I guess I would argue in response that if things are so silo-ed already, with the departments are clustered so close together, how much worse could it really get if things are scattered more? And as one of the people I quote in the piece, Bruce Katz of Brookings, argues, you could conceivably get better coordination through the scattered approach if you organize things in a more regional way, with different agencies out around the country working together to deal with given issues in given places, instead of all working on their own narrow agendas in Washington, even while being more closely physically located there.

– July 26, 2010 12:16 PM
Q.

Breaking up Washington

Washington is already broken. Are you suggesting the different departments be treated as separate entities responsible to the people and not the President?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

The agencies and departments would still be part of the executive branch, accountable to the President. But one reader, a Washington attorney who's thought a lot about these things, wrote me yesterday with one proposal to aggressively reform the actual command structure -- he suggests breaking the country into regions, each of which would have its own elected "vice president" who would oversee the operations of the federal government in his or her area. That could conceivably produce better regional coordination among agencies and departments, and it would introduce a healthy tension between Washington and the rest of the country that might, if it works, produce a result where only the functions that really ought to be at the center are in fact located there.

– July 26, 2010 12:19 PM
Q.

Federalism Versus States' Rights

A lot of these discussions seem rooted in the Federalism versus state republicanism debates of the 18th and 19th centuries. What major philosophical differences, if any, do you see from these debates today and those of the beginnings of our government?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

A good question. Obviously, as my piece briefly notes, our system has sought from the start to keep power from being unduly concentrated in the capital by apportioning a fair amount of authority to the states. And states still have plenty of power, and public employment is scattered around the country in the form of millions of state jobs. But the federal government has nonetheless grown over time. And while some of the growth has occurred in areas that true federalists would argue belong at the state level, the case can be made that a lot of the growth properly belongs at the federal level. There are obvious areas like national security, and then there are areas such as health care reform -- one reason the Democrats decided to try to overhaul the health care system was that many of the states that had the most uninsured people were showing next to no inclination to deal with the problem on their own. So if you have more things be handled at the federal level, the question then  becomes, is there anything that could be done to keep the actual work itself from becoming too concentrated in one region of the country, so that things are not as out of balance as they to be today. That is what I'm hoping to get people thinking about.

– July 26, 2010 12:28 PM
Q.

Breaking up Washington or the Government?

Mr. MacGillis: Don't you undermine the basic argument of your column in the third-to-last paragraph, where you assert that the American people distastefully associate Washington with vote chasing, taxing and lobbying? How does dispersing portions of administrative departments ameliorate issues that are directly related to Federal governance? Would you have Congressmen and Senators tele-commute instead of roaming the halls of the Capitol? Should the President relocate each season to a set of regional White Houses? Let's face it, vote chasing, taxing and lobbying occur at all levels of government, but at the national level, they all will continue to roost in Washington. Dispersing some administrative aspects at first glance have a feel-good quality about them, but accomplishing this would, in the short term, be disruptive and messy. If there are some sound reasons for doing so, based on objective criteria, then fine. However, I don't think that will solve the core issues of your article.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

A good point. But just to be clear: the piece is not advocating actually dispersing the core work of the White House and legislature -- I thought about taking things that far (why not, for instance, have more congressional hearings out around the country as was done with the recent oil spill hearings in Louisiana), but I decided to limit the argument to the administrative functions. I was actually making a slightly different point when I brought up the fact that Washington's image is so dominated by unpopular pursuits like lobbying and vote-chasing. Namely, that the concentration of influence and government jobs in Washington is more problematic in this country than it is in other countries where the capital is truly the center of the country in every sense -- London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Tokyo, you name it. In those countries, it's fully expected that the capital would dominate the country because it always has and always will, it is the historic hub of the wheel. When Spain wins the World Cup, the cameras flash to the square in Madrid with the cheering throngs. But in this country, Washington is not the true, all-encompassing center (the cameras don't flash to DC or Falls Church in World Cup games!) and so there's all the more likelihood that Washington's growing sway and prosperity will produce real resentment. It's clear that the city's disproportionate prosperity has a lot to do with the growing government/contracting sector here, in a way that it's harder to distinguish how much of London's prosperity is due to government versus, say, the finance industry.

– July 26, 2010 12:35 PM
Q.

We need power concentrated

The founding fathers may have not wanted to concentrate power, but they didn't need a strong central government like we do today. Today, the average person can't be self reliant in terms of food and shelter. They weren't reliant on a massive network of people and organizations both public and private simply to live and survive like we do today. Just the simple act of getting water is something we cannot do without our government - I don't have well, do you? Our founding fathers may have been the great political minds of their day, but we shouldn't blindly follow them today any more than we do the great medical minds of their era. You wanna go to the doctor for leeches?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

Nope, no well for me. And again, the piece is not arguing to shrinking or doing away with the federal government, because it clearly has a role today that the founders couldn't have contemplated. The question is whether the government could be organized in a way that doesn't benefit one region of the country in such a disproportionate way.

– July 26, 2010 12:37 PM
Q.

Congress out of Washington

Why, in this age of the Internet and video conferencing, could not Senators and Representatives be required to work and be available in the state or district that elects them 10 working days each month?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

In fact, most congressmen today spend more time in their districts than they did years ago because it's so easy to fly back and forth -- so much so that many people think it's undermined effective government because they don't spend enough time talking to each other and forming productive relationships. To be sure, congressmen need to be in touch with their districts, but this is a separate issue from the one I was trying to raise with the piece.

– July 26, 2010 12:38 PM
Q.

Breaking up Washington

So we break up Washington and what happens to the poor and the middle class. If government officials don't want to do anything for these class of people, who will have their backs when we break up Washington?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

You're right -- the federal government has, for many citizens, been the ultimate protector, especially in states with governments that are not particularly active. But again, I'm not arguing for doing away with the federal government, but for possibly organizing it in a way that gets it closer to the people it's meant to serve.

– July 26, 2010 12:40 PM
Q.

scattering government

What makes you think that anyone wants to go live in Stupidville USA? It's not just a matter of jobs, it's a lack of quality of life issue. As an example, you couldn't pay me enough money to move to Arizona right now, the state is consumed with idiocy. It seems rather foolish to think that people would want to lower their quality of life for the questionable rewards of working someplace where people hate the government & send idiots & liars to represent their dimwitted desires. There are no end of places that are just too stupid for anyone to want to live in, and there's nothing that's going to fix that. You might like the grandiose idea of trying to force civilians to move someplace to keep their jobs, but the fact is that most people would rather tell you to shove it. I don't understand how you can fail to see the rather obvious problem with what I think is an impractical & very bad idea. The fact is that if other states want to improve, wouldn't it be better if they made sure people in the states were better educated than they are?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

And to think that people around the country think Washingtonians look down on them! Where could they ever get that idea?

That said, you do raise a valid point -- not every one would want to follow their job somewhere else. But there are plenty of qualified people in other cities who would want to apply for the jobs that moved to their midst. And the piece is not necessarily talking about moving jobs to the deepest provinces -- we're talking about places like Chicago or St. Louis or Buffalo, places that do not fit my definition of Stupidville.

– July 26, 2010 12:44 PM
Q.

What would happen to DC?

Is this just a theoretical idea, or do you think there would be a way to implement this feasibly? Wouldn't such a move essentially destroy the city as we know it? Would this become a mass exodus from the entire region, or are you talking on a small scale?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

I'm obviously not expecting Congress to take this up next week -- just thought it was good for people to start thinking more about the growing imbalance between this region and the rest of the country and what could perhaps be done about it. But even if it were carried out to some degree, I do not think it would come even close to destroying the city, but would only start to balance things out at the margins. That's partly because D.C. has grown so much less dependent on the federal government itself for employment -- it's growth has been so broad-based (Capital One, Marriott, Northrop Grumman, Gannett, etc.) that it would be hard to see it collapsing if even a large proportion of its federal employment and contracting base were scattered elsewhere.

– July 26, 2010 12:47 PM
Q.

Stupidville, USA?

Let's put aside the arrogance that this poster displayed regarding the quality of life outside the Beltway (no wonder why people in "flyover land" don't like us). But isn't it obvious that this person did NOT live in DC when Marion Barry was Mayor? I did, and no small town in Arizona could possibly compete for the Stupidville tag during that time.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

I'll just post this one without comment -- no harm in a little regional repartee.

– July 26, 2010 12:48 PM
Q.

Employees Are a Very Small Part of the Federal Budget

What about the argument that policy and spending -- not federal employees -- is what really matters? Why not cut a real piece out of the pie instead of collecting crumbs. Example: If our government had funded a world-class rail system that connnected Clarksburg, Buffalo, etc. to other parts of country making it easy to conduct business, travel there and spend money, wouldn't that have had a real impact that could not be matched by sending a few hundred or thousand jobs to the area? We spend many hundreds of billions, yet neglect the infrastructure needed for a strong economy.

A.
Alec MacGillis :

This is a very good point -- federal employment is far from the only way that the federal government can encourage economic development in struggling parts of the country. And rail could in fact be a big part of the answer, as the government starts doling out the $8 billion or so in high speed rail money in the stimulus package. That money's only going to go so far, but if there's a continuing commitment in this area, this could hold real potential, especially in areas such as the Midwest, where cities are scattered in a way that is so well suited for rail, the 100-300 mile gaps that are too long for easy driving but too short for sensible flying.

– July 26, 2010 12:51 PM
Q.

More Deficit Spending

So, you think 25% of federal workforce is too much in DC - but have you given any thought to the fact that those 25% already have offices and that spreading them out means that GSA is going to be very busy locating and renting office space wherever they go? You seem to think of the disproportionate effect on the region there, but have you given any thought to a cost/benefit analysis of what it would take to relocate parts of large agencies? I might agree to paying more to relocate staff if I could be convinced that it would be good for the nation - but to go to the expense just to spread offices out around the country with no payback is meaningless.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

No doubt, if this is done in the wrong way it could be hugely inefficient and wasteful. But the fact is, the GSA is in the process of spending a LOT of money on new and expanded buildings here in greater DC, which in some cases moving facilities further out into the suburbs, in places that are not exactly smart-growth minded. Why not at least consider whether cheap real estate in struggling big-city downtowns around the country wouldn't be a better spot for some of this?

– July 26, 2010 12:54 PM
Q.

Outside the Beltway

Each agency will be in favor of this concept - for all its rivals.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

Exactly. As I mentioned in the top of the piece, the universal instinct to self-preservation will be hard to overcome.

– July 26, 2010 12:54 PM
Q.

A view from inside the federal gov't

I work in a small independent federal agency in DC. We could just as easily do all our regulatory work in Bismarck, ND, Lompoc, CA or Jamestown, NY. But I think I know why you never hear the political appointees who run agencies like mine advocate for moving agencies out of DC (or at least no further away than Germantown, MD). The appointees like the face time they get on the Hill and the White House with the power-brokers, and they are very reluctant to lose that face time. It's a quick walk down North Capitol for my agency's head to meet our oversight committee members on the Hill and a quick taxi ride over the White House. Not so easy if you're in another time zone and need to fly out for face time. That's why I think we won't be "breaking up" Washington any time soon.

A.
Alec MacGillis :

This is a very important point that my piece does not fully overcome. Face time does still count for something. Not to mention the savings of not having to fly bureaucrats in for actual events like congressional hearings and big meetings

– July 26, 2010 12:56 PM
Q.

Great idea and good for the environment!

I've lived her for 40 years and the political nonsense and bloated infrastructure feeding off the government just get worse and worse. You can't toss a stone without hitting a lawyer, politician or somebody working for a government contractor. I feel so dirty being around all these scumbags... help clean the water by sending these guys to iowa or somewhere.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

I wouldn't put it this bluntly, of course, but this is sort of what my piece was trying to get at -- metro Washington has been getting top heavy with the growth of government and contracting in a way that does not seem entirely natural or sustainable for the country, or necessarily healthy for the region itself. When you go to you local playground and half the fathers there can't tell you what they do for work ("I'm in systems") then it may be time for a correction.

– July 26, 2010 12:58 PM
Q.

Economy

Hi, Alec - although I don't think your suggestion of moving the portion of the federal government that is in DC to other areas of the country is very practical or efficient, the one thing I really take issue with is your characterization of the area's economic situation. Although the metro area's economy is more stable in some regards, it is only because of the federal government's location that this is true. When you take away the NW quadrant of DC, for example, you have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. If the federal government were to leave and go to various other locations, it might marginally lift those places, but this region would be devastated.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

No doubt, metro Washington's prosperity is spread very unevenly across the region, and that's something that the city and region have to do a better job of dealing with. But the fact remains: metro Washington as a whole is just doing light years better than pretty much any other major city in the country. When six of the top 10 riches counties are all here, and when home prices here have gone up more than any other city since 2000 (even NYC, with all its Wall Street cash), that merits a closer look.

– July 26, 2010 1:01 PM
Q.

Breaking Up Washington

The suggestion is ludicrous on its face. Government is already dispersed across the land primarily in the amount of money that goes to states and the many jobs as well. Why do you take out defense and veterans jobs to arrive at your 75% proportional figure? Those are government jobs, and account for perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars each year. I don't understand the attack on Washington because it has grown. Historically, during times of war that happens. I for one think Washington is a great city and I am happy that it is finally getting on the map. Why lump Washington, DC with Md., VA, WV, PA and all its surrounding states when you calculate the unemployment rate, because the UE rate in DC is around 10% not 6%, we need those jobs here. We have the infrastructure here and are investing more to improve and expand metro and other rail lines, what about the opportunity cost of all those dollars spent for that if you move large chunks of the Federal presence out? That would be a waste. You don't talk about breaking up NY or Chicago. Maybe they should disperse those private sector jobs more, what about Wall Street or the mercantile exchange, maybe they are hogging capital and jobs. Government is more important than all of them. Maybe you could give us a full disclosure on your agenda. Thanks
A.
Alec MacGillis :

No agenda at all -- I live and work in metro Washington, and cover the federal government here for the Post, and so if anything am arguing against my own interests to the extent I have any. Just think this is an imbalance that people ought to be paying closer attention to. To your specific points: I think one should discount the military and VA jobs because those are jobs that are necessarily scattered around the country -- VA hospitals HAVE to be everywhere. I wanted to focus on the jobs that we have some greater freedom in determining their location, and the fact is, fully a quarter of those are in DC. I use the metro unemployment rate because it is far more representative of this region as a whole than the rate for DC proper, where only 600,000 of the region's millions reside. (And the region for unemployment purposes does not stretch all the way to PA or WV or even Baltimore.) And as for breaking up other sectors -- most jobs settle in certain places for all sorts of reason, going all the way back to NYC's history as a mercantile center on the Hudson. There's no way to relocate private industry by fiat without engaging in true industrial policy. But the government does have a great deal of say in where it puts its own agencies and departments, and may be time to rethink how it does that.

– July 26, 2010 1:06 PM
Q.

Wait...what?

I'm a bit confused here--are you saying that power is too concentrated in DC, or not concentrated enough (as it's not enough of a "hub" like London or Madrid)? And you seem to be saying both that Washington's growth is exclusively dependent on federal jobs (thus indicating a problem) and that Washington's growth has enough support from the private sector that we can lose a chunk of the federal job market without harming the city. Am I missing something?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

I'd be glad to clarify. Federal power and jobs are very much concentratedin Washington, which might not be as much of a problem or source of resentment if the city were a true, all-encompassing national capital in every sense of the term.

And the growth of other parts of the economy in Washington (some of which have of course grown up here partly because of the government being here) has arguably exacerbated the imbalance that my piece talks about.  It used to be that other parts of the country could take in solace in the fact that while Washington was insulated in downturns, it also lagged in boom times. That's not the case anymore -- Washington is ahead of the pack in good times and bad.

– July 26, 2010 1:09 PM
Q.

Synergy

I work at a research lab in DC and occasionally collaborate with colleagues in the area. For example, I have visited DOE and helped out reviewing proposals. Or up to Gaithersburg (NIST) to work in the lab up there. Those short visits suddenly become multi-day (expen$ive) travel. There are plenty of other examples of this sort of thing. Research triangle in North Carolina. Silicon Valley. Concentration is not necessarily a bad thing.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

Another fair point, echoing the one earlier about the importance of face time. Though as you note, even the concentration in this area isn't all that concentrated, to the extent it requires hiking out to Gaithersburg. In the name of keepings things close here in metro Washington, we've actually spread them out quite a bit.

– July 26, 2010 1:12 PM
Q.

what about dual capitals?

Some countries have more than one capital. Would that be effective in this country? Or maybe have summer capital some where north where it doesn't get so hot.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

An intriguing idea, especially at this time of year. I hereby  nominate Milwaukee.

– July 26, 2010 1:13 PM
Q.

Breaking up Washington

Anyone remember the last time the government was decentralized and weak? Oh yeah it was just before our nations worst moment, the civil war. Want to do that again?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

Sure. But that was decentralization of power to the states. What's being discussed here is decentralization of the federal government around the country, while retaining the actual authority and tasks at the federal level.

– July 26, 2010 1:15 PM
Q.

Sounds great, but how to implement?

I am a federal employee in Washington, and while I love my job, I also would love to live and work in another location. Although I could do _my_ job from anywhere, my supervisor, or his supervisor, need to advise clients physically located in Washington, or interact with Congress, or do other Washington-specific things. As they're here, they [feel they] need me to be here. Given that it's still exceedingly rare to see local government workers allowed to telework more than once per week -- and given that many agencies lack good telework technology -- how do we successfully link all your scattered outpost offices back to their Washington clients/supervisors?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

Thanks for this input. I suspect there are many more people here in Washington who feel the same way. Right now, the Patent and Trademark office is pretty much alone in forging ahead with very liberal telecommuting rules. We'll see how that goes. Clearly, workplace productivity experts who know this stuff better than I do would have to be called in to do this the right way.

– July 26, 2010 1:17 PM
Q.

a modest proposal

So why not just make NY the national capital? Their subway works, their baseball team wins (one of 'em anyway) and everyone hates them even more than DC. Washington could be ceded back to Md., which could mine its major resource: cattle guano.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

Again, just putting this out there to encourage the regional chauvinism back and forth, which I'm all for...

– July 26, 2010 1:19 PM
Q.

Local Effects

It seems that if we were to shift around most government bureaucracies like the Transportation, Interior, HUD, HHS, etc, most of the effect on our region would be very District-centric. Without a major shake-up in the intelligence and DOD communities, the effects on the suburbs (especially Northern Virginia) would remain relatively small, while these are just the areas that are growing the most uncontrollably. It just seems to me that the defense industry is so large and vested in a culture here that they helped create, that they would never want to leave. This is why so many major defense contractors have moved their headquarters from California to Virginia lately. Moving the Bureau of Land Management from Washington to Salt Lake City sounds relatively simple and logical in comparison.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

This is a very good point that I struggled to overcome. So much of the contracting apparatus is here for the big dogs in national security -- Pentagon, CIA, NSA -- that even my piece did not venture to suggest moving out.

– July 26, 2010 1:20 PM
Q.

Cleveland, OH

In addition to the economic impact of having the federal government (and jobs) in other areas, I think an additional positive result could be to the change to policies. In my experience working with HUD programs, I have noticed that the regulations and guidelines are written by people whose worldview includes stable jobs, appreciating/stable housing and from areas with stable to increasing populations. We are given rules and regulations that don't make sense and frequently negatively impact declining markets and areas with additional challenges. I realize proposed policies do have a "public review" right now, but truly, do you see any other positive, or negative, impacts to having true regulation and policy development from federal agencies coming from outside DC?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

This is a terrific point that goes to the heart of the argument in the piece -- the imbalance in Washington's prosperity is getting to the point that it is simply very hard, walking around this city, to realize what things are like in the rest of the country. That has to take a toll on the policy making that is being done here.

– July 26, 2010 1:22 PM
Q.

Oulook: Breaking up Washington

Isn't it a fact that the Washington metropolitan area has one of the highest costs of living in the country, and wouldn't most federal agencies be cheaper to operate if relocated to metro areas having a much lower cost of living?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

Bingo. As I noted before, home prices have gone up 78 percent in metro Washington this past decade, even after the crash -- more than anywhere else in the country.

– July 26, 2010 1:22 PM
Q.

SWDC

The one problem I have with this proposal, is that it would result in a lack of interaction with other political thinkers. One of the great perks of living in Washington and working in the government is that discussing politics is no longer a 3rd rail in social settings like it is in the rest of the nation. The ability to discuss complex political issues in DC leads to some new ideas, and new collaboration.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

True -- I appreciate this about living and working here as well. But isn't that a benefit that should be spread more broadly around the country? There are plenty people interested in government and policy and politics -- do they really all have to live and work here?

– July 26, 2010 1:23 PM
Q.

Do we need Exhibit C?

Exhibit A for breaking up Washington: today's massive power outages and related communications and transportation snafus. Exhibit B: Snowpocalypse and Snowmageddon.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

Another good practical-minded point.

– July 26, 2010 1:25 PM
Q.

Faulty Premise

Your underlying premise is that dispersing government functions would create more support for them. We don't see that support where it has already occurred. Virginia probably has as many government jobs as any state yet Barack Obama was only the first Democratic presidential candidate in 44 years to win the state. The state still has a propensity to elect right-wing anti-government kooks like Ken Cuccinelli.

A.
Alec MacGillis :

Glad to discuss this particular point, which was one of my main arguments. And I would counter that Virginia is in fact evidence in the piece's favor. Northern Virginia has been trending consisently and steadily more blue in the past decade or two, parallel to the growth of federal employment there. Yes, the Republicans did better last year, but the trend lines overall have been clear. And look at what happened in Murtha's district a few months ago -- Democrat Mark Critz was able to argue for the federal government in a way that Democrats have a very hard time doing in similarly conservative areas that don't have as many federal jobs. Research over the years has shown a clear connection between government employment and support for government.

– July 26, 2010 1:28 PM
Q.

Relocating an agency can be tricky

Years ago, management in HCFA (Health Care Financing Administration, now named The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) announced that the agency was going to relocate from Woodlawn, Maryland (where the staff was spread out in many rented buildings) to inner Baltimore City. Many people objected to this and said that they'd go work for another agency. The data for this was captured in a survey and it was concluded that HCFA wouldn't be able to do its job if it lost a crucial amount of staff. Then Woodlawn donated land for HCFA's big new building, which was then built.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

This is very interesting, and I'm embarrassed I did not know about this, especially given that I worked in Baltimore for five years. I'll look it up. I suspect that if a similar move was proposed today, there would be less resistance to it, given the way Baltimore's come along. In general, Baltimore seems an ideal candidate for absorbing more federal jobs -- it's real estate is relatively affordable, it's a short train ride to DC, and it could use an economic boost more than metro Washington.

– July 26, 2010 1:30 PM
Q.

Loved your idea

When I first read your headline I thought you were a nut, BUT as I started reading the article I realized that your idea makes sense. Putting and end to those two hour one-way commutes would be good for both: people and environment. If you could only figure out a way to get ALL resident lobbyists out of town. Let them come in for a few days, do their thing and go back to where they came from.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

Thanks. No, I don't think I'm a nut. But I don't really have an easy answer on the lobbyists.

– July 26, 2010 1:32 PM
Q.

Stability of contrator base.

You make a provocative argument. My concern is that the Federal Government in DC is surrounded by thousands of small private firms. Having this concentration of private companies is nice for employees because if one firm fails, or loses its contract, there is probably another one close by. It's like Silicon Valley that way.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

Sure, it's nice for the employees who are already there -- but such a concentration make sense from a regional/national standpoint? Our recent piece about the high concentration of college graduates in metro Washington mentioned a young man who graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a civil engineering degree and would have gladly stayed in Pittsburgh, but could only find work at a consulting firm in Chantilly that does work for the federal government. So he's working in Chantilly, commuting from Tysons. Wouldn't it have been better for everyone involved -- him, Pittsburgh, even the Fairfax County roads -- if he could have gotten work in P'burgh?

– July 26, 2010 1:35 PM
Q.

Hiding The Ball

The ultimate public protection against the Government is being able to appeal agency decisions to Courts. If you geographically disperse Government, no one uniform body of law will apply. That means that -- instead of too little scrutiny -- Government will effectively be under NO scrutiny at all. So, did the NAM or the US Chamber pay you a royalty for your piece?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

The same administrative and federal courts would still have jurisdiction. And nope, the Chamber most definitely did not pay for this -- last I checked they, like other lobbyists-interest groups, like having the government in one place, to make it easier to focus their influence.

– July 26, 2010 1:36 PM
Q.

Agency "Capture"

Your proposal is a blueprint for the complete "capture" of Federal agencies and authority by regulated and funded entities. The brakes would be completely off. The logical conclusion of your suggestion would be, the SEC, OCC and FDIC go to New York, where they would promptly cease regulating anything and even individual bank deposits would be plundered; the USDA would go to Kansas and Missouri, where factory farms and rip-off subsidies would be further encouraged; and environmental regulators would go to coastal and protected areas, where the oil and shipping companies would dominate their every move. Kind of like now, but literally a million times worse. Washington was envisioned as a Government town precisely because, maybe at least a little, it keeps the pecuniary interests of the regulated entities a little further out than they would otherwise be.
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Alec MacGillis :

This is a valid point, and one I addressed in noting that the Minerals Management Service had some doozies of scandals in their Denver and Louisiana offices. I wouldn't necessarily argue, though, for putting agencies at the heart of the given industry; the Consumer Financial Protection Agency could be in a banking town like Charlotte -- or it could be in one of the cities that was hurt so badly by shoddy lending, like Cleveland.

– July 26, 2010 1:38 PM
Q.

Interesting Idea

But what about the costs of moving Feds to their new locations? And most Feds live paycheck to paycheck and moving to a so called lower cost area would result in financial difficulties for many Feds as they tried to adjust to their reduced salaries. And what happens if we can't sell our dumps for enough to pay off the mortgages? If the govt doesn't buy the houses you are putting the employees clearances and eligibility to occupy a sensitive position in jeopardy. So have you really thought about this.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

There are all sorts of logistical issues. And many federal employees would likely decide not to make the move. But again, I just hope to get people to start thinking about all this some more.

– July 26, 2010 1:40 PM
Q.

Why stop at putting agencies in different cities?

We could have workers scattered all over the USA and connect by computer for truly decentralized functions. Think how safe that would be. No target for nukes. Many have proposed that, but only now can we have the technology to really do it.
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Alec MacGillis :

A logistical counter-argument in the piece's favor.

– July 26, 2010 1:40 PM
Q.

What effect on special interests?

Hi, My first thought when I read the piece was "good idea, but isn't the policy influence of special interests/lobbyists a bigger reason that people despise Washington?" I guess I think the quality of policy coming out of Washington is a more important factor, and I see how the geographic dispersal might improve it, but it also might just empower more special interests. And possibly lead to more entrenched positions that we already have. Your thoughts?
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Alec MacGillis :

There's no doubt that lobbying and ineffectual leaders are the biggest reasons people scorn Washington. But I do believe that the resentment has grown as the rest of the country has seen Washington itself doing better and better economically while everyone else drags. This piece is an attempt to deal with the second half of the resentment problem.

– July 26, 2010 1:42 PM
Q.

State College, PA

"One of the great perks of living in Washington and working in the government is that discussing politics is no longer a 3rd rail in social settings like it is in the rest of the nation. The ability to discuss complex political issues in DC leads to some new ideas, and new collaboration." Oh, so the rest of us don't discuss politics and have nothing to contribute? Please. Maybe talking with OTHER PEOPLE might result in some "new ideas, new collaboration." Sheesh.
A.
Alec MacGillis :

A good point, put more sharply than I was able to.

– July 26, 2010 1:43 PM
Q.

Unified policy?

If such a breakup were to occur, would Govermental policy begin to diverge due to location the way that state laws have over a few years? Even with a President to sheppard the overall policy, wouldn't there be a gradual divide?

A.
Alec MacGillis :

Would it diverge, or would it be more effectively tailored to the needs of regions? There are already huge differences between the various parts of this country, more than I think many people in Washington realize. Scattering the government might simply be a way of acknowledging that better and working with it.

– July 26, 2010 1:44 PM
Q.

Six Veeps!

I like that DC attorney's idea about regional vice presidents. For one thing, It might serve to raise the usual low opinion we have of holders of that office. But otoh can you imagine the size of the campaign bumper stickers?

A.
Alec MacGillis :

I agree that it's an intriguing idea.

– July 26, 2010 1:45 PM
Q.

Knowledge

One of the advantages of bureaucracy, as much maligned as it frequently is, is that it makes up a professional, knowledgeable employee base, and in the case of the U.S. Government, a lot of it is here in the Washington, DC area. How do you account for the lack of institutional knowledge outside of the beltway and the resulting loss of efficiency should we take your suggestion to move parts of the government out of the area?
A.
Alec MacGillis :

A good point, as my intent with this piece was certainly not to malign the government or the people who work in it. This would be a cost to consider, as I note in the piece. But it's hard to believe that the federal government necessarily now has all the people in the country who are best suited to the task.

– July 26, 2010 1:47 PM
Q.

Fat Chance!

Why should the rest of us who pay the bill for federal employees' cushy, bullet-proof jobs think it even remotely possible that what you propose (scattering federal jobs across the country) would ever come to pass? It's like expecting reform of the electoral college or doctors' salaries - the beneficiaries of such a rigged system are never going to let change happen.
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Alec MacGillis :

This seems like a good question to end on. As intriguing as some may find this idea, it's obviously up against a whole lot of inertia and self-interest. But I hope that the piece at least got people thinking about the growing imbalance between Washington and the rest of the country and what might be done about it. Clearly, judging by all these great questions (not all of which I was able to get to) the idea has sparked a healthy debate, which is great to see. Thanks to all for taking part --

– July 26, 2010 1:49 PM
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