“Washington [D.C] is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable.”
You may think that statement was tweeted by a disgruntled D.C. commuter amid the crush of cherry blossom peepers in late March and early April. Rather, it’s a quote from the 1850s popularly attributed to Horace Greeley, a former Congressman and newspaper editor for the New York Tribune.
At the time, he urged a westward expansion of Americans outside of and away from D.C., which was originally built on 100 square miles (259 square kilometers) on swampy land given up by both Maryland and Virginia, at roughly the geographic center of the nation at the time (The center today is about 20 miles north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota).
In 1791, an amendment to the Resident Act forbade the “erection of the public buildings otherwise than on the Maryland side of the river Potomac,” where the White House, the Capitol and most federal buildings now stand. Before the Civil War, Congress gave Arlington, where the Pentagon is located today, back to Virginia.
Today, D.C. is still the undisputed seat of the federal government, home to more than 50 government buildings, though suggestions to relocate all or part of the capital as the nation expanded westward didn’t end with Greeley.
More than 150 years since “Manifest Destiny’ made metro dispersion popular, a controlled diaspora of federal offices has been pitched by politicians over the decades to move workers at agencies including the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture to states out west. The Interior’s Bureau of Land Management briefly moved to Colorado in 2020 before it was pulled back to D.C. by Secretary Deb Haaland a year later.
Republican senators, seeking to decentralize the federal government and “drain the swamp,” introduced legislation during the Trump administration in 2019 to relocate 90% of the workforce at 10 federal agencies.
More recently, the FBI, which has been located in D.C. since its creation, plans to move its headquarters outside of the District to either Virginia or Maryland. When plans for a relocation first began, FBI officials wanted a location that could fully accommodate safety standards and allow for consolidating FBI personnel around the metro area in “one modern facility” that would eliminate extraneous leased space.
In September, the General Services Administration said it will come to a decision about the future site in “coming months.” The governors of both states are vying for the site, with the two challenging each other on Twitter to a basketball game over it. Though there’s a strict process for selecting the site that has nothing to do with a pick-up game of basketball, the Maryland governor’s office said this week that discussions are in the works to make one happen, perhaps as a community event.
In the case of the brutalist J. Edgar Hoover Building, some say it’s too old and too small to accommodate an FBI workforce that has grown to meet much more complicated missions since it opened in 1975. Space is precious is the District, forcing the government to look on each side of the Potomac for room. (The FBI’s fingerprint lab left D.C. three decades ago, when Sen. Robert Byrd, an extremely powerful politician from West Virginia, wrangled the facility and its 2,600 employees for this home state, where it remains today.)
That begs the question: what gives federal buildings the authority to locate out of the Capitol when tradition for so long has kept the government’s capital intact?
Legislation set the standard
Legislation dating back to 1790 requires offices of the U.S. government to be located in Washington, D.C. That same year, Congress declared this area would be the nation’s capital.
Over time, while the statute in the U.S. Code does not stipulate what constitutes an office, it has been understood that this geographic requirement applies to executive branch departments.
All that part of the territory of the United States included within the present limits of the District of Columbia shall be the permanent seat of government of the United States. All offices attached to the seat of government shall be exercised in the District of Columbia, and not elsewhere, except as otherwise expressly provided by law.— 4 U.S. Code § 71 - 71
Today, there are agencies that don’t have their main buildings in the capital city including the Pentagon, the CIA in Langley, Virginia, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. Each of these agencies received waivers to the mandatory locations statute and remain in close proximity to D.C.
Each of these agencies also retain a Washington, D.C., mailing address, which is likely a vestige of the pre-zip code era when all federal mail was sorted in one zone, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The General Services Administration, which manages all federal buildings, is also statutorily allowed to acquire federal real estate and issue solicitations for sites, as it did in 2002 for about 275,000 rentable square feet for the Department of Homeland Security. In that search, GSA set the parameters for what constituted “the Metropolitan Area of Washington, D.C.” before choosing a site within the district.
GSA officials did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.