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Spread the swamp? Trump administration wants to move government offices out of Washington

Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Amid the talk of draining swamps, restoring political might to blue-collar America and turning off the spigot of taxpayer cash that showers Washington, a familiar battle cry is ricocheting through this city: Move the bureaucrats out.

It has the ring of a Trumpian fantasy. Dislodge arms of the federal government from Washington and reattach them in faraway places, spreading the wealth generated by these well-paid agency workforces and forcing senior bureaucrats to face the people they affect.

But the idea has established populist roots that spread across party lines, and they are reemerging at this unique political moment.

The swaggering Interior secretary from Montana is putting the finishing touches on his plan to move the headquarters of three large public lands agencies to the West. The Stanford economist representing Silicon Valley in Congress sees opportunity to strategically seed regions of the country with pieces of the federal bureaucracy that can benefit them -- and that they can benefit. The unlikely prospect of locating the Department of Transportation in Los Angeles is dangled by Republicans eager to show this crusade has bipartisan cred.

There hasn't been so much buzz about getting "Washington" out of Washington since Franklin D. Roosevelt sent 30,000 federal workers to the Midwest after a presidential commission advised such moves would ensure the prototypical federal employee "remains one of the people in touch with the people and does not degenerate into an isolated and arrogant bureaucrat."

"We need to find out what we can move," said Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Youngstown, Ohio, who is seeking to create a commission that would identify parts of the bureaucracy that could be moved to economically distressed regions like his. A fellow Ohio congressman and political rival, tea party activist Warren Davidson, has mounted a parallel bureaucracy migration push. He calls it the "Drain the Swamp Act."

 

None of it is going over well with die-hard Washingtonians. Many scold that the idea will flame out the same way it did when the Clinton administration pondered and then dropped a big relocation initiative, and the Reagan administration did the same before it.

When the House Government Oversight Committee passed a "Divest D.C." resolution earlier this year that calls on all agencies to investigate moving out, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting House representative for Washington, warned that it would cost taxpayers a fortune, spread dysfunction throughout the bureaucracy and economically devastate the region.

Her Democratic allies on the committee were not impressed by the suggestion of the measure's sponsor, former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, that maybe it could lead to the Department of Transportation moving to the traffic capital of the nation, liberal Los Angeles.

Other Democrats, though, are intrigued by the possibilities of a redistributed bureaucracy.

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