Washington Business Journal
Guest Comment: Move agencies out of Greater Washington? Yes, and here’s why.
It is a source of great pride for local economic development officials that the D.C. region contains six of the 10 richest counties in America. Promotional pitches for county governments, chambers of commerce and other regional trade groups always tout this fact as they advertise the region’s high income, low unemployment, great schools, shopping, entertainment and a virtually recession-free economy.
The pitches are truthful. This is a uniquely prosperous area. Those of us who live in the region are extremely fortunate. But I worry that we’ve lost perspective. Despite the rise of the tech community in Virginia, the biosciences sector in Maryland and the broader growth of the private sector economy, the wealth of the D.C. region is still disproportionately dependent on the federal government. This obvious fact masks some less obvious problems.
Many regional business, political and community leaders assume that the economic contributions of the federal government will only continue to grow. This is a dangerous assumption. I believe the federal government’s presence in Washington is going to shrink, and as radical as it may seem, I believe both the region and the country will be better off when that happens.
Since the founding of the federal government, D.C. and the surrounding Virginia and Maryland suburbs have had a lock on Cabinet-level offices and most major agencies. This centuries-old tradition could be coming to an end, and the General Services Administration’s current process for a new FBI headquarters may be the turning point.
For the past five years, Congress and the GSA have been engaged in a long and frustrating process to relocate the FBI from its offices on Pennsylvania Avenue NW to a new facility. The requirement mandated by Congress is that the new headquarters must be located in D.C. or within 2 miles of a Metro stop. In other words, 48 states are precluded from even bidding. For that matter, roughly three-fourths of Virginia and Maryland aren’t allowed to compete either.
The justification for the highly restrictive procurement process is undoubtedly national security. The logic: In these perilous times it would be too risky to have the FBI located in Ohio or North Carolina or Texas. It’s a false assumption that won’t stand up to the most cursory review. In fact, the opposite is true. The security interests of the U.S. would be unquestionably better served if key federal agencies weren’t all located within a few miles of each other.
But there is another, equally important consideration for relocating the FBI and other departments and agencies across the country. The pride that so many D.C.-area public and civic leaders have in the region’s exceptional economic success is not shared by most Americans. The new FBI headquarters, with its $2 billion-plus construction budget and the promise of some 9,000 permanent jobs, is one of the largest economic development opportunities in the country. If it is awarded to Fairfax or Prince George’s county, without the rest of America having an opportunity to compete, it will be further proof of the divide that characterized the recent presidential election.
Those of us who call the D.C. area home need to realize that much of the rest of the country resents our good fortune. They don’t believe it’s a measure of success that six of the 10 richest counties are in our region. They see this fact as proof that the government has lost its way, or at least lost touch with its citizens.
The answer is not to hollow out our region and immediately move scores of offices to the rest of the country. But we also shouldn’t fight to maintain a special status that prevents other states from competing. If over the next 25 years, select departments and agencies are thoughtfully and carefully relocated across the country, our local economy will remain strong, the federal government will be more secure and communities that currently hold deep suspicions about Washington will once again believe they have a vested interest in government’s success.
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