The darker the county, the greater the percentage of the workforce that is working from home. Courtesy of Hamilton Lombard.

In 2019, the Trump administration announced that it was moving the Bureau of Land Management out of Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colorado. The administration also moved two Department of Agriculture research agencies to Kansas City.

The ostensible reason for the moves was that the agencies ought to be closer to the interests they serve, although Trump’s budget director chortled that it was also a way to get federal workers to quit. Indeed, many did. Last year, the Biden administration reversed the BLM move. The Interior Department said the move to Colorado “failed to deliver promised jobs across the West and drove hundreds of people out of the agency. Of the 328 positions moved out of Washington, D.C., only 41 of the affected people relocated with three moving to Grand Junction. This led to a significant loss of institutional memory and talent.”

Despite that, or perhaps because of that, some in Washington – mostly, but not always, Republicans – continue to push the idea of moving federal agencies out of the nation’s capital. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Iowa, and Sen. Jodi Ernst, R-Iowa, both have introduced bills to do just that. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio and now his party’s nominee for U.S. Senate in the Buckeye State, introduced similar bills in 2017, 2019 and 2021. None went anywhere because most bills introduced in Congress don’t go anywhere but the idea still percolates, even if it’s no more than a talking point.

I dispute Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney’s taunting of federal employees that the administration was going to “move you out into the real part of the country.” There is no such thing as “the real America,” because that suggests there’s an “unreal America.” It’s all real, man. To think otherwise is a dangerous “othering” of some of our fellow citizens. That rhetorical chastisement aside, I am somewhat sympathetic to the general principle. Perhaps the Bureau of Land Management would be more in tune with the impact of its policies if it were based in the Rocky Mountains, since the vast majority of the land it manages is in the West. Maybe we don’t need to move it all at once – institutional memory is a real thing we ought to value, be it in government or any other institution – but the concept seems pretty sound to me. Why do all federal agencies have to be headquartered in or around Washington?

These moves, however ham-handed they were, took place in 2019 – or, as we say now, pre-pandemic. If there’s one thing that the Age of Zoom has taught us, it’s that a lot of office workers can work anywhere. Maybe the Trump administration was onto something?

Those of you who think I’m about to endorse a Republican idea don’t realize that as a kid I spent hours trying to figure out how to throw a curveball. OK, I didn’t learn how to throw it very well or I’d be polishing all my Cy Young Awards right now instead of tapping away on a keyboard. But how’s this for a curveball?

If the Trump administration thought it was a good idea in 2019 to move some federal agencies out of the D.C. area, why does Gov. Glenn Youngkin today think it’s a good idea to keep so many state workers in downtown Richmond?

Youngkin recently ordered state workers who had been working remotely to return to their offices. We also now have some numbers to attach to that.

The state has 21,314 employees who were deemed eligible to work remotely. Of those, 9,866 requested permission to telecommute – 46%. Whether that’s a lot or not depends on your point of view – glass half full, glass half empty, that sort of thing.

In a curious example of micromanagement, the governor’s chief of staff had to approve requests to telecommute more than two days a week. In all, he approved 1,046 requests to work remotely three to four days a week and signed off on 641 people who requested permission to work remotely five days a week. (Thanks to the Richmond Times-Dispatch for reporting these figures.) More than 300 people resigned, Richmond TV station WRIC reports.

Again, whether that’s a lot or not depends on your perspective and your expectations. Here’s how I prefer to measure all that: Those 641 people who got approval for telecommuting full-time are 641 people who won’t be working in downtown Richmond. Granted, I don’t know if they were working in downtown Richmond to begin with, but hear me out here. This is 641 people who can live anywhere they want. If they all moved to Bath County they’d instantly wipe out all the population declines that county racked up during the past decade – and suddenly Bath County would move from losing population to gaining population. Same for Bristol or Cumberland County or Highland County or Nottoway County or Norton.

See where I’m going here?

We’re already seeing some data – in the form of Census Bureau population estimates – suggesting that there is a modest migration of people underway out of major metros and into rural areas. Youngkin has an opportunity to help accelerate that. I’ll admit that may not be good for downtown Richmond – Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a Democrat, applauded Youngkin’s original call for workers to go back to their offices. But it would be good for the rural areas that voted overwhelmingly for Youngkin and helped install him in the governorship.

I’ve written all that before, so you can go read my original column on why Youngkin should be encouraging more remote work, not discouraging it. So here’s a different pitch: Why do we need a state capital?

OK, that question is more provocative than practical, but let’s explore this some more. What if Youngkin announced he intended to decentralize state government? He need not take some Trump-like stance and start moving agencies out of Richmond. But his administration has just determined that 21,314 state jobs can be done remotely to some degree. What if Youngkin said that henceforth, anyone who applies for any of those 21,314 jobs can live anywhere in the state? Over time, what effect would that have? Ten years from now, how many of those jobs would be where they are now? (We don’t know exactly where those 21,314 jobs are now; maybe all are in Richmond or maybe they’re not).

Wherever those jobs are now, realistically maybe not many would wind up in rural areas but any that do would be a net gain – and in rural communities, even a small influx of high-wage earners can have a disproportionately big impact. Even if not a single one of those 21,314 jobs ever wound up in rural Virginia, just the mere announcement would serve as an important declaration that Virginia recognizes the economic potential of places outside the urban crescent. It would also send a political signal that Youngkin might find useful – here’s an innovative governor, an out-of-the-box thinker, a reformer, someone who could achieve on the state level something Trump tried at the federal level, just with a lot less disruption. Such a move might be a rhetorical winner even if the practical effect is slim. This also would not be as radical as it seems: When Mark Warner, a Democrat, was governor in the early 2000s, he made sure some state contract jobs wound up in Russell County. Surely Youngkin, elected with overwhelmingly rural support, doesn’t want to do less for rural areas than a Democrat did a decade and a half ago?

This raises the question of what would happen if someone tried to decentralize the federal government. Rather than move whole agencies en masse as Trump tried, what if we simply took advantage of remote work as a way to decentralize the workforce? The General Accounting Office looked at 24 agencies across the federal government and found that during the height of the pandemic, “more than half of these agencies exceeded about 80 percent or more of total work time in telework status for at least one fiscal quarter during the pandemic.” (One of those workers was Julio Castillo, a cartographer with the Department of Commerce. During the pandemic, he fell in love with camping in West Virginia and now is one of the 33 people who have signed up for that state’s remote worker incentive program and is now moving to Lewisburg.) What if some president declared that henceforth any federal job that can be done remotely will be considered as such? Over time, how much would that spread the federal workforce across the country?

Yes, I realize to some extent, I’m arguing against the self-interest of Southwest and Southside here. Rural school systems in Virginia are mostly funded by the state, and the state is mostly funded by the income tax (77%), and the most affluent part of the state is Northern Virginia. Ergo, Southwest and Southside depend on Northern Virginia. If people move out of there for other states, that’s bad for us. Still, intellectual honesty compels me to point out the option here.

Such a proposal would require an extraordinarily clever politician – and might not work politically. Republicans are the most keen about moving federal agencies out of Washington, but the least supportive of remote work. A poll by Vox and Data for Progress last year found that 68% of Democrats approve of remote work while 21% disapprove. By contrast, Republicans were nearly evenly divided, with 41% approving and 40% disapproving, which perhaps explains Youngkin’s seeming skepticism about telecommuting in the state workforce. Some Republican would have to persuade his or her base that remote work is actually a good thing – after all, it would actually benefit many Republican-voting rural areas. Or some Democrat would have to persuade his or her base that the old Republican talking point about moving jobs out of the Washington metro is actually a good thing – it would benefit many Democratic-voting Zoomers. Which would be the easiest sell?

Youngkin has a chance to find out. Will he?

* * *

Bonus information: Before the Civil War, when Virginia still ran to the Ohio River, there were periodic attempts to move the state capital out of Richmond on the grounds that it was too far east. In 1818, the General Assembly recommended that the capital be moved west of the Blue Ridge on the grounds that such a location would “present fewer incentives to foreign ambition and less prospect to internal insurrection.” In the 1820s, Briscoe Baldwin, a state legislator from Augusta County, introduced a measure to move the capital to Staunton. Historian Virginius Dabney, in his seminal work “Virginia: The New Dominion,” says that in 1852 the House of Delegates voted 88 to 35 to move the capital out of Richmond – he doesn’t say where and maybe the resolution didn’t say. That proposal died in the state Senate. How might things be different today if it hadn’t?  

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.