Government

Decentralizing the Federal Workforce

"A big part of the problem with Washington: they're too removed from the rest of America."

Arnold Ahlert · Oct. 31, 2019

In a time where it might be considered something of an anomaly, Senate Republicans are actually trying to do something to both help the American people and drain the Washington swamp.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) have introduced the “Helping Infrastructure Restore the Economy (HIRE) Act.” The legislation would “require that the headquarters of certain Federal agencies and permanent duty stations of employees of certain Federal agencies be relocated in order to provide an opportunity to build needed infrastructure in certain areas and to share the benefits of Federal employment with economically distressed regions.”

The HIRE Act would move 90% of positions in 10 executive departments to 10 different states. The Department of Agriculture would be headquartered in Missouri, Commerce in Pennsylvania, Education in Tennessee, Energy in Kentucky, Health and Human Services in Indiana, Housing and Urban Development in Ohio, Interior in New Mexico, Labor in West Virginia, Transportation in Michigan, and Veterans Affairs in South Carolina.

“Every year, Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars fund federal agencies that are mainly located in the D.C. bubble,” Hawley explained. “That’s a big part of the problem with Washington: they’re too removed from the rest of America. The HIRE Act will move policymakers directly into the communities they serve, creating thousands of jobs for local communities and saving taxpayers billions of dollars along the way.”

Blackburn agreed. “Moving agencies outside of Washington, D.C. both boosts local economies and lowers costs — that’s a winning combination,” she stated. “This legislation would enable Americans across the country to have greater access to good jobs. Tennesseans would greatly benefit from having portions of the Department of Education in the Volunteer State. It is my hope that the HIRE Act will quickly pass the Senate.”

Unsurprisingly, there was blowback from whence one would expect it to arise. “Employees don’t want to move, and it doesn’t make sense for them to move,” said American Federation of Government Employees spokesman Peter Winch. He further insisted the move “does not serve a public purpose.”

Winch’s handwringing was echoed by DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who vowed to fight the bill. “Hundreds of federal employees and their families have already been impacted by attempts to relocate agencies, which directly hurts their operations,” she said in a statement. “Congress cannot do its job without the unvarnished facts and briefings that nonpartisan agencies give the House and Senate almost daily. I have already gotten language in appropriations bills that would block politically motivated moves outside the National Capital Region, and I will continue to fight these relocations with every tool at my disposal.”

What’s really going on here? What’s alway going on among a cohort of workers grown used to the perks and privileges of government employment. Federal workers who make 17% more in total compensation than comparable private-sector workers, according to a 2017 CBO study. Federal workers who have job protections that make them virtually impossible to fire once they have completed their first year. In all the ensuing years, federal workers can retain their jobs for 170 days after their superiors have decided to fire them. And even after they’re fired, they can file an appeal that takes an average of 243 days to process.

In short, while private-sector workers face a one-in-77 chance of being fired or laid off, the odds of a federal worker being fired are one-in-500, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

More germane, federal workers also receive “Payscale Locality Adjustments,” as in higher pay if one is working in an area with a higher cost of living — which is why moving many of these jobs to low cost-of-living locales would save taxpayers billions of dollars.

Even more revealing is the sense of entitlement. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in June it was moving to the Kansas City area, nearly 80% of the workforce left rather than locate. When Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the move, employees turned their back in silent protest. “It’s a mixture of outrage and resignation,” USDA researcher Andrew Crane-Droesch said at the time of the announcement, regarding morale at his office. “Nobody wants to move — nothing against Kansas City.”

Really? When Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced in July that Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also planned to move 81% of the agency’s headquarters staff west of the Rockies by 2020 — where the federal government controls more than 80% of the land — dozens of former officials denounced the move. “You’re setting up the BLM for failure,” insisted Elaine Zielinski, former BLM director in Arizona and Oregon.

Sally Jewell, former Interior Secretary in the Obama administration, was equally upset. “They are going to take the remaining people, which largely deal with advocacy for the BLM in Washington, DC, and move them to Grand Junction, Colorado. Because that is such an epicenter for political leadership,” she said, also complaining. “If you have raised your family in Washington, DC, you really know this business well, you’ve got relationships on Capitol Hill, your kids are in school, your spouse is working, and they want to move you to Grand Junction.”

“This is a not-so-thinly-veiled attempt to get people to quit,” she added “We are losing really good people across government, and that is partly the intent. I think that is a shame.”

Note the arrogance and sarcasm. American taxpayers can’t possibly expect federal workers to give up their tony lives and connections in the nation’s capital to work in “misbegotten” locales like Grand Junction. Thus, forcing people to do so is really about getting these “noble” public servants to quit instead.

Nonsense. Few things speak to the polarization of this nation more clearly than the idea that “flyover country” is anathema to bureaucrats, because it lacks the cultural “sophistication” of the nation’s capital. And if virtually un-fireable workers wish to terminate their own jobs in protest, one suspects the overwhelming majority of American see that as a win-win, despite all the handwringing by swamp defenders, who assert that moving agencies out of DC is a bad idea “because that’s where decisions get made.”

Like the ones that got us $22 trillion in debt? Yet again, utter nonsense in an age of high-speed Internet, teleconferencing — and legendary bureaucratic inertia epitomized by a Veterans Administration that was allowing people to die, even as data was fudged, waiting lists were kept secret, and VA execs were getting bonuses.

More important, Americans are sick and tired of one-size-fits-all centralized government and a bureaucracy that employs 1.87 million civilian full-time federal employees.

If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is smart, he’ll make this legislation a high-profile priority. Americans deserve to know which senators have their backs — and which ones prefer to preserve swampy status quo.

America has endured government of, by, and for the bureaucracy for far too long.

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