Unless President-elect Donald Trump intervenes, a multibillion dollar economic development decision will soon unfold, further enriching the Washington Beltway while intentionally excluding the rest of the country from even competing for the opportunity.
The government agency responsible for supporting federal offices is set to award a construction contract for a new FBI headquarters that will cost upwards of $2 billion and bring with it nearly 9,000 permanent jobs.
The process for awarding the winning bid is a symbol of what's wrong with the federal government and why the country has so little confidence in Washington. Before the bid process was even started, Congress and the General Services Administration (GSA) determined that only the District of Columbia and neighboring counties in Maryland and Virginia could compete for the project.
The decision to exclude the other 48 states is perceived by Congress and the GSA as reasonable, even essential. It is neither. A process that pre-determines that the rest of the country doesn't even get a chance to submit a proposal is inherently unfair, unwise and unjustifiable.
The central fallacy of the requirement that the new headquarters be located in the National Capital Region is that the FBI wouldn't be able to fulfill its mission if forced to operate outside the Washington Beltway. This argument might have been valid in the 1920s, but it is no longer a rational justification. In fact, a strong argument can be made that in the age of terror, building another federal facility in a region where scores already exist is risky, if not foolhardy.
Beyond the national security considerations of maintaining so many sensitive agencies within a small geographical footprint, the economic considerations are also significant. According to the GSA, the FBI needs 2.1 million square feet to house the thousands of workers who will be based there. I'm not aware of another entity anywhere that's seeking to build a headquarters of comparable size, with a payroll anywhere close to that of the FBI.
To land the Tesla Gigafactory and its 6,500 workers, the state of Nevada put together a package of incentives totaling $1.3 billion. Texas gave Toyota more than $40 million in incentives to move its North American Manufacturing headquarters to Dallas. The carmaker’s new office will cost approximately $350 million and house 3,000 employees.
States would certainly vie for the chance to land the FBI headquarters. This is a unique development opportunity that will transform the region that wins the bid.
Yet Congress and the GSA won’t allow competition. It makes no sense.
If the recent presidential election proves anything, it is that most Americans have low regard for Washington. The D.C. metro area celebrates the fact that six of the 10 wealthiest counties in the country are within the region. The rest of the country seethes at this fact. The magnitude of the public’s disdain for the way Washington operates should be considered in the FBI decision. There is no simple answer to this problem, but relocating important federal agencies to communities across the country would be a positive step.
In October, candidate Trump said, “It's time to drain the swamp in Washington D.C.”
His stated focus was the lobbying community. A second focus should be on the government itself. It’s one thing for Washington to lay permanent claim to the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Treasury Department, the State Department, the Smithsonian, the Pentagon, the National Archives and various monuments and memorials. It’s another thing to say that the entire federal apparatus, from the FBI to FEMA to the FDIC and beyond, must be within a metro ride of the city.
If Cincinnati or Charlotte or Houston were to win a fair, open bidding process for the FBI, the impact on the victorious city would be unprecedented. The Washington business community would be disappointed, but the rest of the nation would see it as a step in the right direction. And the country would still be as secure as ever.
More significantly, a message would be sent to every American that the federal government belongs to the country—not just to the inhabitants of the Beltway.
Dan McGinn is the founder and chief executive officer of McGinn and Company. He is a strategic communications advisor for Fortune 100 companies and prominent institutions.
Head over to The Hill to read the original story
A version of this story also ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer