Fight Over New FBI HQ Part of Larger Debate on Draining the Federal Swamp

As of now, House Republicans have removed funds from the FY 2024 budget for the controversial $3.5 billion proposed relocation of the FBI’s Washington, D.C. headquarters to a new complex at one of three locations in the D.C. suburbs of Virginia or Maryland.

Some House Republicans want to keep the FBI headquarters at its current location and view the relocation proposal as unwise and wasteful. Others want to downsize, defund or eliminate the Bureau – and not to reward it with a sprawling new headquarters complex – because they believe it has been weaponized against conservatives.

There also is growing support by Republicans to save money and depoliticize U.S. government agencies by decentralizing them and moving most of their personnel out of the “Washington swamp” (the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area) to locations across the U.S.

The Political Battle Over a New FBI HQ

The FBI’s current headquarters, the J. Edgar Hoover building, has been used by the bureau since 1974. It occupies a city block on Pennsylvania Avenue across the street from the Justice Department and equidistant between the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

FBI leaders have been fighting for a new headquarters building for over two decades because they claim the Hoover building is old and crumbling. They contend that a new and larger headquarters complex in suburban Maryland or Virginia will enhance the bureau’s operations and still be close enough to D.C. for its work with Congress, the White House, and federal agencies and courts.

President Trump opposed the FBI giving up its prime headquarters location and canceled the relocation. Instead, he ordered the FBI headquarters to be rebuilt at its current site. Congress blocked funding for this decision.

President Biden reversed President Trump’s decision in his FY 2023 budget request and committed to relocating the FBI headquarters to a site in D.C.’s suburbs in Maryland or Virginia. The three sites under consideration are Greenbelt, Maryland; Landover, Maryland; and Springfield, Virginia. The Biden Administration recently announced that social equity to favor underserved minority communities will be a factor in the site selection. 

The FBI HQ Relocation Proposal is a Fraud

Current and former FBI officers have told me FBI leaders are misleading Congress and the American people about their proposal to relocate the FBI headquarters to Maryland or Virginia for two reasons.

First, they hate giving up the FBI’s central location near the Justice Department, White House, the Capitol, and the D.C. federal courts and believe the new site will undermine the FBI’s efficiency and worker morale.

These current and former FBI officers noted that the existing FBI headquarters building is close to two subway lines and a mile from Virginia and Maryland commuter trains. By contrast, public transportation to all of the proposed FBI headquarters sites is poor, and none are within walking distance of subway or commuter rail lines.

Moreover, due to traffic gridlock in the D.C. area, it could take FBI officials an hour or more to drive to the White House or the U.S. Capitol from the leading site candidate, Springfield, Virginia (14 miles from Washington). There also would be long driving times from the Greenbelt site (12 miles away) and the Landover site (8 miles away).

Because of the gridlock problem, two former FBI officers agreed that FBI’s leadership will quietly create a D.C. “headquarters element” soon after the move to a new headquarters facility so senior FBI officers can interact more easily with officials. Other federal agencies have set up offices like this in D.C.

In all likelihood, the FBI would start by renting a few floors of office space for a headquarters element a few months after the opening of a new Virginia or Maryland headquarters. However, because of how federal bureaucracies work and the prestige of working in D.C., this FBI headquarters element is certain to surge in size over time into a large staff with its own office building.

The second reason current and former FBI officers told me they oppose the proposed FBI headquarters is because the Bureau will be getting a large new complex in Virginia or Maryland but will retain dozens of other large buildings and compounds. (The FBI has hundreds of offices across the U.S., some quite small). They said that despite FBI leadership’s claims that the headquarters staff must be located in the Washington D.C. area, the Bureau has huge facilities in Quantico, Virginia and the Redstone Arsenal Campus in Huntsville, Alabama where many FBI headquarters offices have already moved.

Because so many FBI headquarters functions have been relocated to Quantico and Huntsville, both facilities are often referred to as a “second headquarters.” 

The Case for Decentralizing the Federal Government

Many congressional Republicans take a different view of the proposal to create a new FBI headquarters – they want to move it out of the Washington, D.C. area. They believe the best way to depoliticize the FBI and other government agencies is to move their headquarters away from the toxic political environment of Washington and closer to the American people.

However, there are other good reasons why decentralization of government proponents want to move federal agencies out of the D.C. metropolitan area which bear on the proposed FBI HQ relocation.

Many decentralization proponents view the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia continuing to reap enormous economic benefits from federal spending just because they are located near federal agency headquarters as highly unfair to the rest of the country. They note that this is why three of the top five wealthiest counties in the United States are in the D.C. suburbs: Loudon, Virginia (#1); Fall Church, Virginia (#3); and Fairfax, Virginia (#5).

Decentralization proponents ask why this federal spending can’t be distributed more fairly across the United States. Why not move the Department of Agriculture to Des Moines, the Department of Transportation to Detroit, or the Department of Homeland Security to Dallas? Such moves would enhance the missions of these agencies and put them closer to the American people. They also would allow federal workers to escape the D.C. area’s skyrocketing real estate prices.

President Trump made two attempts to do this when he moved the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management to Grand Junction, Colorado and two Agriculture Department research agencies to the Kansas City area. The Biden Administration reversed the move of the Bureau of Land Management in 2021.

A related reason for relocating federal agency headquarters out of D.C. is because technological innovations over the last few decades have made it no longer necessary for these agencies to have large staffs in the capital. Workers can easily work from offices far from D.C. via email and video conferences. Moreover, many D.C.-based federal agencies frequently hold interagency meetings by video conference instead of meeting in person due to traffic problems. National security agencies often do this with secure video conferences. As a result, many federal workers in D.C. rarely travel to other agencies for meetings. If these workers were relocated to Fort Lauderdale, Billings, or Kansas City, their job routines would remain the same.

The most powerful reason for moving the headquarters of federal agencies out of D.C. is that most of their office space is sitting empty. The Federal Times reported on July 13 that as much as 75% of federal office space was unused, and 17 of 24 federal agencies were using less than 25% of their D.C. buildings. The reason for this is teleworking that began during the coronavirus pandemic.

Rather than spend billions of dollars for huge, unused federal agency headquarters buildings in D.C., decentralization proponents recommend breaking up these agencies and moving smaller headquarters staffs to locations around the U.S.

Another vital reason for decentralizing the federal government is security, a consideration of particular importance for the FBI. Concentrating large numbers of federal workers in one city makes it possible for a U.S. adversary to easily cripple the U.S. government with a chemical, nuclear, or biological attack. Since technological advances have made it unnecessary for most of these workers to be physically located in the capital region, relocating federal headquarters staffs across the country would promote national security and the continuity of the U.S. government in the event of an enemy attack, act of terrorism, or other national emergency.

House and Senate Republicans Divided Over New FBI Headquarters

Given the above arguments against the proposed new FBI headquarters and growing support to decentralize the U.S. government, some House Republicans have proposed moving the FBI’s headquarters outside the Washington, D.C. area. However, there is disagreement over this within the House Republican Caucus and with their Senate counterparts.

House members have raised several alternative locations for a new FBI HQ. The FBI’s existing campus at the Redstone Arsenal Campus in Huntsville, Alabama is favored by several GOP House members. This idea has been championed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH). Former President Trump and Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville also have expressed support for moving the FBI headquarters to Alabama.

To counter what he claims is the weaponization of the FBI and its politicized bureaucracy, Chairman Jordan proposed that Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Granger strip funding for a new FBI HQ unless it selects a location outside of the D.C. metropolitan area. His suggestions also encouraged the FBI to move its headquarters to the Redstone Arsenal.

The House Appropriations Committee voted on July 13 to strip funding for a new FBI HQ from its FY 2024 spending bill, but did not include Jordan’s language encouraging the Bureau to move its headquarters to Alabama. Instead, the committee embraced House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s approach to decentralize the FBI by spreading operations into several states. McCarthy explained his approach in a July 17 statement:

“This idea that we’re going to build a new, big Pentagon and put all the FBI mainly in one place, I don’t think it’s a good structure. I’d like to see the structure of a much smaller FBI administration building, and more FBI agents out across the country, helping to keep the country safe.”

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously on July 13 to appropriate $375 million in the committee’s FY 2024 spending bill to relocate the FBI HQ to the Maryland or Virginia locations.

There will be a heated debate over a new FBI HQ when the House and Senate 2024 Appropriations bills go to conference. Speaker McCarthy will be under intense pressure from House Republicans to hold fast on this issue. Due to likely pressure from the Senate and because this is such a high-priority issue for House and Senate Democrats, McCarthy could possibly use this issue as a bargaining chip for other priorities in the belief that a possible Republican president in January 2025 will again kill moving the FBI headquarters to Virginia or Maryland.

It also is unclear whether Senate Republicans will step forward and join their House counterparts to block the controversial proposal to move the FBI headquarters to Virginia or Maryland. Perhaps the Biden Administration’s recent announcement that it will select the location for a new FBI headquarters on the basis of “equity” will cause Senate Republicans to speak out against the FBI HQ relocation.

Regardless of how this works out for the FBI’s FY 2024 appropriation, the debate over a new FBI HQ and moving headquarters of other federal agencies outside of the Washington, D.C. area is likely to intensify, especially if a new America First president is elected in November 2024 who is determined to drain the swamp.

Fred Fleitz previously served as National Security Council chief of staff, CIA analyst and as a House Intelligence Committee staff member.

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Notable Replies

  1. Why not plop them onto Johnston Atoll?

  2. Well presented Mr. Fleitz----especially the explanations for the thinking of the different factions. I’m in the camp of downsizing the agency and splitting many the FBI’s duties among other agencies. As such, locating the new headquarters to Alabama doesn’t bother me at all.

  3. This country does not need a national police force. As we have witnessed in recent years (but has gone on for far longer), the potential for the FBI to use its massive power for political purposes is a temptation too great.

    The FBI should be stripped of its police powers entirely, but keep the forensic and data accumulation sections. Oh, and the BATF needs to go as well. Anything with the words, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in its title should be a convenience store, not a government agency with arrest powers.

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