Staff Columnist

Joni Ernst's big idea: Decentralize the central government

'SWAMP Act' worth considering, despite logistical challenges

(File photo) U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) (from left) answers a question as U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) looks on during a press availability after a breakfast with the Linn Eagles at the Cedar Rapids Country Club in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(File photo) U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) (from left) answers a question as U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) looks on during a press availability after a breakfast with the Linn Eagles at the Cedar Rapids Country Club in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

You may have heard about Amazon HQ2. Now get ready for federal government HQ2.

The online retailer Amazon announced plans last year to build a second headquarters, setting off a bidding war among U.S. cities hopeful to host the corporate giant. Now U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst is calling to do something similar for government agencies.

Ernst announced last week she’s sponsoring legislation to move many federal offices out of Washington, D.C. and into other cities across the United States. She’s calling it the Strategic Withdrawal of Agencies for Meaningful Placement — or SWAMP — Act, a nod to President Donald Trump’s election refrain of “drain the swamp.”

“The SWAMP Act seeks to get the federal government outside of the Washington beltway, so these federal agencies can see and hear firsthand the impact their policies have on the folks who know their states, businesses, and needs the best,” Ernst said in a news release.

It may seem like a radical proposal, but a diverse set of policy wonks have studied the idea and found a long list of benefits related to decentralizing our central government.

For starters, it’s hardly fair for such a large share of our taxes to be redistributed to such a small corner of the country. Breaking up federal functions is a prime opportunity for politicians looking to bring home more bacon.

The federal government employs more than 2 million civilians. About 20 percent are based in Washington, D.C., Virginia or Maryland, according to an online database from Governing magazine, even though those areas only make up about 5 percent of the U.S. population.

Not only would the breakup put bureaucrats closer to everyday Americans they’re supposed to serve, like Ernst emphasizes, there’s an added bonus of keeping those same bureaucrats away from our elected officials.

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Government insiders are often permanent, unlike presidents and legislators who face term limits and the wrath of voters. They exert significant political pressure on policymakers, helping to ensure their bloated federal programs keep getting fed generous portions of taxpayer dollars.

Taking those operatives out of the Capitol could help create an environment where Congress can finally get serious about our enormous federal deficit.

Aside from the politics, decentralizing our government offices could help solve two very practical problems facing the nation — East Coast cities have too many people for their real estate and infrastructure, and several other U.S. metro areas have too much real estate and infrastructure for their people.

Many liberal and conservative commentators have researched the idea and reached the same conclusion as Ernst.

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in 2012, “If you don’t mind congested roads and insanely competitive child rearing, all this growth is good news for those of us inside the Beltway bubble. But is it good for America?”

And liberal Vox writer Matthew Yglesias wrote in 2016, “Relocated agencies’ employees would enjoy cheaper houses, shorter commutes, and a higher standard of living, while Midwestern communities would see their population and tax base stabilized and gain new opportunities for complementary industries to grow.”

The question remains, how would new federal headquarters sites be chosen?

At just six pages, Ernst’s SWAMP Act is short on specifics. It directs the General Services Administration to facilitate the exodus, based on three criteria for selecting destinations — impact on local economy and workforce; local expertise in an agency’s subject matter; and impact on national security.

I’m highly skeptical of that process. The same way hundreds of cities are competing to offer Amazon the best corporate welfare package, state and local governments would scramble to prove their homes are the best suited to serve as a federal satellite.

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Amazon announced a list of 20 finalists earlier this year, and few Midwest cities made the cut. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are heavily concentrated near Washington, D.C., including the district itself, two suburbs and several others on the northeast coast.

Cities are enticed by Amazon officials’ promise to spend some $5 billion on construction and bring up to 50,000 jobs. However, it should be clear the economic development arms race is unsustainable. We can’t tax-credit ourselves into prosperity.

A city-versus-city brawl for behemoth federal headquarters could prove to be even uglier than the Amazon frenzy. Imagine a state workforce development program designed to produce the next generation of Internal Revenue Service accountants. I shudder at the untold hours government staffers will waste on their applications.

Other parts of the SWAMP Act should give Americans pause as well. The bill specifically exempts several agencies from having to relocate, including any dealing with national security.

Freedom-loving Americans will cringe at the idea of the National Security Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency being left alone with lawmakers, free from the noise of other federal interests.

If Ernst hopes to break up the federal base of operations without unleashing a toxic bidding war, she’ll need to identify some other method. Yet even if some logistical challenges still need working out, she’s presenting an idea worthy of consideration.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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