Push to Return Federal Workers to Offices – Monsoon or Squall in Northern Virginia

The benefits of 60 years of headlong federal government expansion, Northern Virginia edition.

By James C. Sherlock

The federal government has for nearly three years been paying very expensive leases for D.C area office buildings that are virtually empty.

COVID emergency.  Or was.

Now it is a battle between the comfort of federal employees with working from wherever they can get a good network connection vs. actually showing up at the office.

The feds report that as of the beginning of this calendar year, 47% of federal employees were still working remotely.

Since civilian federal employees thankfully still include people who work in other than an office as their normal place of work, we can assume that more than 47% of Northern Virginia federal workers are working remotely.

And we can assume they like it.  Would you like to try to get to D.C. every day from, say, western Fairfax County, much less the exurbs, if you didn’t have to?

Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Democratic mayor of Washington D.C have formed an unusual coalition to get them back to the office.

Beltway Democrats in the House fought it there and have lost so far .  Senate Democrats and President Biden, mindful that federal employees are one of their most dependable voting blocs, are unlikely to follow the House’s lead.

But it is secretly kind of fun to consider that Northern Virginia would sort of explode if they all tried to return in the same week.

Perhaps the experience would prompt efforts to return some of NOVA to a semblance of livability by distributing the headquarters of most of the agencies across the country.

Federal News Network reported on Jan 30 that a “GOP bill to return feds to the office clears the House.”

Cue the outrage and angst among federal employees and Democrats other than D.C. Mayor Bowser.

Beltway Democrats Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), John Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Abigail Spanberger (D. Va.) led the failed attempts to change the bill. It passed on a party-line vote.

Republicans want federal employees back in the office. Something about productivity declines and work backlogs at the IRS, Social Security Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs and others.

I admit to being torn about increasing IRS productivity (associated thought — where are Mr. Biden’s 87,000 new IRS agents going to live?). But real people depend upon the VA and Social Security Administration.

They don’t want to go back. Something about they don’t want to go back.

The Mayor wants her city’s office space back if the feds aren’t going to use it. Something about D.C.’s extraordinary supply of boarded up businesses and fading tax revenues since COVID.  It is a one-industry town without the industry, or at least most of its metro area employees.

D.C. has turned into a ghost town during the work week, and a lot of the young people who have paid exorbitant rents to live “close to work” find that work can be near a beach if there is no office to go to.

Same answer for Northern Virginia. I was raised there before the beltway was built. It really was a beautiful place then.

Worked there for 10 years after the Navy. The beauty was gone unless you had a lot of money to access what remained. Overlooking the Potomac and such.

Then there is the breathtakingly expensive Metro that nobody much rides to go to jobs they no longer have to show up for. Daily weekday ridership declined from 630,000 in November of 2019 to 263,000 in November of 2022.

So from 75 years of experience, I can comfortably ask who the hell would live there now if they did not have to for some reason?

The headlong expansion of the federal government over the past 60 years has turned the once beautiful Northern Virginia in which I grew up into a grey, soul- draining, overbuilt, gridlocked suburban/kind-of-urban dystopia.

I have always wanted the federal government to shrink, or at least be distributed more broadly across America.

Modern communications would enable the latter.

Indeed, the technology that lets all of those workers work from home would clearly allow the distribution of their agencies.

But Democrats hate that notion. Something about breaking their grip on Virginia and Maryland politics.

The Trump Administration in July of 2019 announced

plans to move hundreds of government jobs out of Washington, D.C. The Department of Agriculture is transplanting two of its research agencies to the Kansas City area. And the Interior Department said this week the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters will soon be in Colorado.

President Biden, a one-trick pony when it came to Trump Administration policies, slowed and has basically ended that initiative.  In the end only 328 D.C.-based BLM headquarter jobs were moved to offices in the West.

You know, closer to BLM land.

And way prettier than the beltway.

So I desperately hope that one day soon most of the federal employees in the Washington area have to go back to the office.

The resulting national emergency declaration would perhaps put the spotlight back on relocation of headquarters.

I will watch that from the safety of Virginia Beach.