Two Republican Senators, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Josh Hawley of Missouri, have a great idea: Move most of the federal government out of Washington, DC. That is, federal offices should be relocated to the nation that pays for them, so that top officials can get to know the people they are administering. It’s hard to think of anything politically healthier than that.
Indeed, the Blackburn-Hawley idea is a way not only to drain the Beltway swamp; it’s also a way to build up the national economy, including in those places where national and international trends — such as digitalization and globalization — have drained away dollars.
So that’s why Blackburn and Hawley have just proposed the HIRE Act, short for Helping Infrastructure Restore the Economy. In this case, the “infrastructure” is the engine of federal spending, which would, of course, lead also to added roads, bridges, and other amenities, serving to accommodate the moved federal employees. The duo describe the purpose of the legislation this way:
To require that the headquarters of certain Federal agencies and permanent duty stations of employees of certain Federal agencies be relocated in order to provide an opportunity to build needed infrastructure in certain areas and to share the benefits of Federal employment with economically distressed regions.
Specifically, the two lawmakers want to move ten cabinet departments out of D.C. Thus the Department of Transportation would go to Michigan, the Department of Housing and Urban Development would go to Ohio, the Department of Veterans Affairs would go to South Carolina, and so on.
And yes, the Department of Education would go to Blackburn’s home state of Tennessee, and the Department of Agriculture would go to Hawley’s Missouri.
Some will say that the two senators are just playing pork-barrel politics, that the transfers are simply ways of bringing jobs and money back to their own constituents. In response, we can observe that, by definition, all government decisions are political, and so “pork” is typically in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, as Aristotle explained 2500 years ago, man is a zoon politikon, a political animal. So of course, everything to do with men, and women, is political.
Indeed, from its inception, the United States has been political. The decision to establish the District of Columbia was intensely political; the creation of a new federal city on the banks of the Potomac — bypassing, say, New York City or Philadelphia — was a hard-wrought compromise between North and South.
Yet as wise as they were, the Founders, back in the 18th century, had no idea just how big the federal government would grow. Today, in the 21st century, engorged by federal spending, D.C. is now the richest metro area in the country. So maybe it’s time for a new political compromise — a decision to spread some of that wealth around, such that the economic and social gap between the imperial city and the provinces can be lessened.
In fact, the Trump administration has been at least somewhat in tune with the decentralizing mission of Blackburn and Hawley. For instance, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has already ordered that an office within his department, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, be moved to, yes, Missouri.
One can only say, It’s about time. It is, after all, more than a little nonsensical that the Agriculture Department should be headquartered in a city where probably the biggest cash crop is artisanal marijuana.
Yet even this small and logical relocation has been controversial. On October 21, a disgruntled USDA employee wrote a snippy op-ed in The Washington Post complaining about the move — and explaining why he would quit before moving to the Show Me State.
In response, Hawley, an adroit social media warrior, jumped on the chance to defend his state and grab some free publicity for his bill; that very same day, he tweeted,
I assume this is a parody, right? DC bureaucrats aren’t actually saying out loud that moving to Missouri is … punishment, are they? Because surely nobody could be that condescending & elitist.
Hawley’s tweet provoked Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent to counter-tweet, calling Hawley “smarmy” and “smirky.” Then Sargent went further, accusing Hawley of being a leader of the “new conservative nationalism.” So now we know that inside the Beltway, the mere words “conservative nationalist” are an epithet. And yet outside the Beltway, back home in Missouri, Hawley cheerfully embraces the label.
This back-and-forth volleying led to a social media melee, chronicled by Breitbart News’s Sean Moran, involving everyone from CNN’s Jake Tapper to Iowa’s Sen. Joni Ernst.
Meanwhile, speaking up for the Beltway, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Democrat of the District of Columbia, protested against the Blackburn-Hawley bill, arguing that 85 percent of federal employees already live outside of the D.C. metro area. And while that’s true, it’s also true that the top jobs — including the high-paid jobs of private contractors, who often work alongside federal employees, and yet don’t show up on federal job rolls — are in Washington.
From a populist point of view, we can see the strong appeal of the HIRE Act: If the folks at The Washington Post, CNN, and the D.C. Democratic Party don’t like it, well, it has to be a good idea.
Yet even beyond the positive optics of the HIRE Act, its economics, too, are strong.
The Economics of Swamp-Draining
Whatever else one might think of it, the federal government is a mighty economic engine. After all, this year alone, Uncle Sam will spend some $4.7 trillion. And as we have seen, the spending of every penny of that $4.7 trillion is inherently political. So now, let’s talk about the politics of where to spend it. Blackburn and Hawley have their suggestion: Spread it around better.
Some will argue, of course, that the federal government spends too much, and so let’s focus on cutting spending, not spreading spending. Yes, it might well be the case that the feds spend too much, and yet as we have all learned — or should have, at least — it’s not so easy to cut the federal budget — as in, virtually impossible. Indeed, if we take a look at this chart, we can see that federal spending has been on an upward curve since, well, forever. Yes, occasionally, it downticks for a year or two, but then it upticks, and the spending trend line ratchets right back up.
To be sure, every few years a Republican big shot comes to Washington, full of fight, saying that this time, no kidding, spending will be cut. And yet during the tenures of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and Paul Ryan — to name just three would-be cutters — spending just kept increasing. We might consider that back in the first quarter of 1981, when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th president, the federal government was spending, at an annualized rate, $680 billion a year. And yet now, in the third quarter of 2019, as Donald Trump serves as the 45th president, Uncle Sam is spending seven times as much.
This spending surge can be deemed undesirable, but it is not unsustainable. And why is that? How do we manage all this spending? Answer: Because the economy has grown, too, at about the same rate. That is, we’re spending more, but we’re also producing more; a rising tide lifts all boats, including Uncle Sam’s boat.
Here are the numbers on growth: In the same first quarter of 1981 that saw the Gipper sworn in, the U.S. gross domestic product was $3.1 trillion. Now, in the third quarter of 2019, GDP is a tad more than $21.5 trillion. So we can see: just as federal spending has grown seven-fold, so has the economy. (And in the meantime, interest rates are low — and have even fallen lower.)
The point here is not about economics, but rather, about politics. It’s possible to believe sincerely that federal spending should, and can, be cut. (Just be sure not to cut Social Security, as grassroots Republicans, by a more than 2:1 margin, would be quick to say. So that’s more than a trillion dollars, right there, that nobody’s going to touch.)
Indeed, in the here and now, when the Democrats control the House, thus blocking any budget cut, it’s worth thinking about how to make sure that red states get their fair share of federal spending. That is, if the money is going to be spent anyway, let’s think, and be smart, about where it’s going to be spent.
With that pragmatic point in mind, let’s consider the U.S. Department of Education (DOEd), which Blackburn seeks to relocate to Tennessee. As we all know, DOEd, established in 1979, is one of the cabinet departments that Republican presidential candidates have routinely pledged to abolish. And yet here’s a reality-gram: In the four decades since DOEd’s establishment, four Republican presidents — Reagan, Bush 41, Bush 43, and Trump — have made their peace with DOE. As Elton John might sing, It’s still standing.
Indeed, the Trump administration, spearheaded by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — no liberal she — has proposed a fiscal year 2020 budget of $64 billion. In the meantime, according to the Pew Center, 72 percent of Americans wish to see federal aid to education increased, while 18 percent wish to see it remain the same. Just nine percent want to see it decreased. So yes, for the foreseeable future, DOE is here to stay.
Of course, just because DOEd isn’t going anywhere doesn’t mean that it can’t be changed. It might never be abolished, but it can nevertheless be reformed. And getting DOEd outside of the Capital hothouse would be a shrewd way to start the reform process.
Yes, moving DOEd out to the Heartland would be a step in the right direction. And if some Beltway educrats don’t want to lower themselves by making the trek to Tennessee, well, we can be sure that plenty of Tennesseans, as well as others, will take those six-figure jobs — and that’s a further step in the right direction.
Thus Blackburn’s plan is a win-win: It would winningly improve federal education policymaking by exposing it to Middle American realities, and it would winningly stimulate the Tennessee economy. Yes, of course, the vast bulk of DOEd’s $64 billion will be spent across all the American states and territories, and yet still, a not inconsiderable fraction of that money — including the best and most prestigious jobs within the department — will be spent at the headquarters. So once again: Who should get that money? Workers in Washington, DC? Or in Nashville, Knoxville, or who knows, maybe even Cookeville?
To be sure, the same Democrats who help keep federal spending high are not about to agree to move DOEd to the Volunteer State. Indeed, it’s not at all apparent that Republicans would agree, either; after all, Tennessee is not the only state to which DOEd could possibly move.
Yet even so, surely it’s worth starting a national debate over D.C. decentralization. Advocates can point out that there’s been plenty of constructive decentralization in the past, starting with that historic decision to put the national capital in a brand new city, as opposed to a more established city.
In the 20th century, it was a political decision to set up the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, MD, just outside of Baltimore. Why did the Roosevelt administration choose to do that? A big reason was that the chief legislative architect of the Social Security Act of 1935, Rep. David John Lewis, was from — you guessed it — Maryland.
More recently, the idea of federal decentralization has been kicking around in various forms. In 2017, Republican Reps. Ted Budd of North Carolina and Warren Davidson of Ohio proposed their own version of the spread-the-wealth idea, which they dubbed the Drain the Swamp Act. That same year, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah pushed a resolution, “Divest DC.” Indeed, even some liberals have supported the idea.
Of course, some conservatives, and Republicans, might oppose federal decentralization for a nakedly political reason: it could bring liberal Democratic bureaucrats to their turf — assuming they don’t quit first — and perhaps affect state and local politics. Admittedly, that’s a potential issue, and yet it’s also possible that the experience of being moved, from inside the Beltway to outside, will change the perspective of those federal employees.
At a minimum, the thinking of the Imperial City will be de-imperialized. That is, the hard us-against-them attitude that now characterizes relations between the Beltway and the Boonies would be softened. As Sen. Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, likes to say, “It’s hard to hate someone you know.”
Such a getting-to-know you process, by itself, would be of great value to the nation. Thus the Blackburn-Hawley idea is a major step forward in the reuniting of our 50 states, and even the wayward D.C.
That’s what conservative nationalism is all about — conserving the nation.