Sen. Ernst Wants to Move Feds Out of Washington, Make Firms Earn Contract Bonuses

August 1, 2019 Updated: August 1, 2019

WASHINGTON—Moving federal departments and agencies out of the nation’s capital is a perennial proposal that comes and goes without raising much notice, but President Donald Trump is acting on the idea and an Iowa senator wants to help him speed it up.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) also wants to see that bureaucrats are held accountable for the bonuses they award.

“Washington-based federal agencies and bureaucrats make important decisions that impact the lives of Iowans, and all Americans,” Ernst said July 25 in announcing her “Strategic Withdrawal for Agencies Meaningful Placement Act of 2019 (SWAMP).

“Yet, how can these rule-makers fully consider and understand the effects of their decisions, when those who are most impacted by their rules and regulations are out-of-sight and out-of-mind? We need to fix that,” said Ernst.

“Instead of housing federal agencies in swampy D.C., let’s move them outside of the Beltway and closer to the folks who know the needs of their states, farms, and businesses best. And in the process, we will see more job creation and greater opportunities for communities across the country—not just in D.C.,” she continued.

It’s not coincidental that the Iowa Republican, who retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel before being elected to the Senate in 2014, faces voters in November 2020.

Ernst is running for reelection next year as 22 Republican Senate seats are on the line, while three Republican senators—Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Pat Roberts of Kansas—have opted to retire rather than stand for another six-year term.

“Draining the swamp” is a popular idea among Republicans in elections, and transferring agencies out across the country is seen as part and parcel of reducing the overgrown federal government.

The idea has drawn support among Democrats, too, beginning with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who moved 30,000 civil servants to the Midwest during the New Deal.

Roosevelt’s purpose was to ensure the typical federal worker “remains one of the people in touch with the people and does not degenerate into an isolated and arrogant bureaucrat.”

More recently, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who is seeking his party’s presidential nomination, has also expressed support for the concept, as has another Democratic aspirant, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Trump is moving ahead with plans to relocate the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and Economic Research Service (ERS) to the Kansas City, Missouri, area.

But moving a small agency such as the ERS, with fewer than 300 employees, incited protests and an exodus of workers who refused to leave the Washington area, which enjoys one of the nation’s highest regional median household incomes.

Those who stayed with ERS voted to join the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest of the major federal worker organizations.

Ernst’s bill is aimed to remove at least some of the main obstacles to large-scale relocations. Moving offices such as the ERS can be done by the president, but transferring large independent agencies and whole departments requires congressional approval.

Among the key provisions of the Ernst proposal are these:

  • Repeals the section of the U.S. Code that requires federal agencies and departments to be located in Washington.
  • Prohibits agencies currently headquartered in the Washington area from entering into new lease agreements, making significant renovations to their existing locations, or beginning construction on new facilities in the area.
  • Exempts the Executive Office of the President (EOP), the Department of Defense (DOD), and all other national security-related agencies that must be in close proximity to Congress and the White House.
  • Establishes a competitive bidding process enabling states and municipalities to compete for relocated headquarters.

Bogus Bonuses

Ernst is also taking aim at an obscure but costly practice of federal acquisition regulations that allow government contracting officers to award bonuses even though the contractors may not have earned it.

The Bogus Bonus Ban Act of 2019 directs all federal agencies to establish concrete standards that must be met before bonuses can be paid. Sens. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) are co-sponsors.

Other provisions include:

  • Set standards for determining which agency officials are authorized to approve awards and incentives.
  • Establish the circumstances under which a contractor’s performance may be judged.
  • Establish standards for determining the percentage of the available award fee that should be paid.
  • Systematically collect data on award and incentive fees paid to contractors.
  • Set performance measures to evaluate the effectiveness of award and incentive fees.
  • Return to the U.S. Treasury any funds set aside for bonuses that are not paid due to the contractor’s inability to meet the established criteria.

Ernst cited recent reports by the inspectors general at DOD and NASA that unearthed hundreds of millions of tax dollars paid to contractors who may or may not have earned the extra compensation.

“It’s hard to believe, but federal contractors rake in millions in bonuses, even for projects that go nowhere. That kind of unaccountability is simply ridiculous,” Ernst said of her bill.

Contact Mark Tapscott at