Editorial: USDA plan a move toward better government

A move outside Washington would be good in the long run.

Published on October 25, 2018 9:11AM

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Plans at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to move two of its agencies out of the District of Columbia and into the countryside has the mandarins predicting dire consequences, but we think the Republic might actually be better served with its government spread out among the governed.

USDA proposes moving the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of Washington, D.C., by the end of next year. It has not settled on an alternative location for the agencies.

According to USDA, the moves are intended to help recruit qualified staff, locate the agencies closer to stakeholders and save money.

That makes sense. Washington is an expensive city, but we would be happily surprised if any money were saved. We think moving agencies out of the capital will help make government more responsive to the needs of the people.

Bureaucrats, former and present, think this is a terrible idea.

Earlier this month, 56 former USDA and federal statistical agency officials and 45 organizations sent letters warning of the damage the move would cause, including loss of staff expertise by employees not willing to move and loss of visibility with policy makers.

There was a similar outcry when a bipartisan group of senators last year suggested that the Bureau of Land Management be moved from the capital to somewhere in the West where BLM manages large swaths of the real estate. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, who manages BLM, agreed. So did we.

First, it seems unrealistic that these agencies will be left without any physical presence at headquarters.

Even if they were, to suggest that an agency that is out of sight would be equally out of the mind of department leadership at budget time seems a bit far fetched. It has been our experience that even the most fiscally conservative cabinet members are oath to cut off viable parts of their empires.

It’s true the agency mid-level managers will have less opportunity to bump into Secretary Perdue in the cafeteria or to participate in the impromptu bull sessions around the watercooler with other apparatchiks. But with the plethora of electronic communications options available today — even in such dusty outposts as Des Moines and Kansas City — we don’t think anyone should be left out of substantive discussions on policy.

We understand the appeal of being close to the heart of power. Even a casual visitor to Washington, D.C., can easily be caught up in the pomp and ceremony. For those who work there, it is woven into the fabric of their being.

The problem with centralized government is that it loses touch with those being governed. For whom are the statistics being collected? For whom is the research being conducted?

We think that a move outside of Washington, while disruptive in the short run, would be good in the long run.


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