Plans Afoot to Move Some Feds Out of Washington

Plans are afoot to move some jobs and employees out of Washington. Can an agency move organizations and employees?

Moving Federal Agencies

Federal agencies and large portions of federal agencies do not move far away to new geographic locations very often. It is expensive and there is always lots of pressure to leave people where they are. Congress gets involved, often for satisfying interests of their own constituents, and employees often want to stay where they are.

The Trump administration wants to move some agencies out of Washington. That would “spread the wealth” to other areas. It is not accidental that the Washington, DC metropolitan has some of the wealthiest areas of the country—often directly and indirectly related to government spending and jobs.

The wealth factor cited by politicians is reflected in the affluence of counties around the nation’s capital. The Washington, DC area has half of the ten wealthiest counties in America thanks in large part to the impact of the federal government. The affluence of the area is also reflected in Washington’s high cost of living.

In his inauguration speech, President Trump said:

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.

Where to Start: USDA and Interior

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced last year that it plans to relocate the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS).

The Department of Interior (DOI) also wants a few million dollars to implement its relocation plans. Through 12 new unified regions, DOI wants to improve collaboration and coordination in its bureaus on key DOI missions—such as recreation, conservation, and permitting—and to focus regions on the same resources and constituents.

In the main budget proposal for next year, the administration writes that “By relocating staff, the Department brings employees closer to the public that they serve and the resources they manage.”

Can Uncle Sam Force An Employee to Move?

Can the government force an employee to move in order to keep his job? Is congressional approval required to move an organization such as these in USDA? What options do employees have when their jobs are moving but they do not want to go with them?

Franklin D. Roosevelt sent 30,000 federal workers to the Midwest to ensure the typical federal employee “remains one of the people in touch with the people and does not degenerate into an isolated and arrogant bureaucrat.”

Federal employees can be forced to move in order to keep their federal jobs. Of course, resigning or looking for another job in government to remain in the Washington area is always an option.

The reality is many people do not want to move for a variety of reasons, including fear of the unknown, remaining close to family and friends, a working spouse would have to leave a thriving career to move, or the attraction of continuing to live in an economically prosperous area such as Northern Virginia or some of the Maryland suburbs around Washington.

It is often the case that financial incentives are offered to employees with regard to such a move including Voluntary Early Retirement Authority and Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments.

There are valid concerns likely to arise in moving any significant number of federal employees. Local Congressional delegations will raise these issues and are likely to try and derail the move. The reality is that the government does not have to consider personal issues such as these. The bigger question is will the move serve a larger purpose such as helping an agency become more successful in fulfilling its mission and bringing the agency closer to the interests the agency was created to serve.

Congress does not have to get involved in most small moves. There may be enough money and legislative authority to move small organizations. Congress will get involved in large moves as millions of dollars are required to move a large number of people and large organizations.

That is what is occurring with the USDA and Interior moves referenced above. Reasonable people can argue that moving organizations out of the Washington area will serve a larger public interest. While the government may save money with a move to a less expensive area over time, it will usually cost millions of dollars to make the move.

Draining the Swamp?

Moving agencies from Washington to other parts of the country is sometimes referred to as “draining the swamp.” In fact, a House Resolution was passed by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee last year and promptly attacked by a local DC representative. Also, a bill was introduced in the last Congress called the “Swamp Act.” It did not get approved in the House, where it was introduced, but reflects the position of some in Congress that the footprint of the federal government should be reduced in Washington.

The reality is that large scale proposals to move agencies out of Washington rarely succeed. There are usually too many vested interests working to prevent the move. Most employees do not have to worry when a bill is introduced or a budget proposal is made to implement a move.

It does mean employees in potentially impacted agencies should pay attention. While large moves are rare, they can happen—even in an organization as bureaucratic as the American federal government. For now, those impacted employees at Interior and Agriculture should pay attention to what happens in the budget process in Congress for the coming year.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47