Move Washington Out of Washington

What do you suppose the Alliance for American Advertising has in common with the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, the American Society of Civil Engineers, or American Apparel and Footwear? Apart from beginning with the letter “A,” they are among the nearly 3,500 trades or firms that have dedicated lobbying operations in Washington, D.C.

And that doesn’t count the union headquarters located in D.C., from AFSCME (“We make America Happen”) to SEIU (“the nation’s most diverse union”) and beyond, they’re all there, hands out, telephones working overtime to get a little bigger slice of the government pie, made with 100 percent locally sourced materials, namely your tax dollars.

Have you noticed the odd feeling you get when walking around downtown D.C.? I used to think that it was because of the stately government buildings, the imposing aura of edifices like the Supreme Court (with its ironic motto, “Equal Justice Under Law”) or the Capitol or the White House. That’s part of it, no doubt, but for the daily pedestrian, an essential reality of life in Washington is brought home by the ubiquity of the lobbying efforts. They’re all there, the people that want something, and the people who get paid to articulate those wants to lawmakers, their gargantuan staffs, and the media. (I say “lawmakers,” though the House has pretty much given up on making laws for the sake of continuing their hit mini-series, “At Home with Impeachment.”)

Donald Trump came to office promising to “drain the swamp.” He has made a little, mostly rhetorical, progress around the edges. But the swampiness of the swamp is deep and inveterate. He will never succeed in that stupendous sanitary engineering project until he removes the thing that attracts the swamp creatures to Washington just as a rotting carcass attracts flies and other necrophagites: centers of power and influence.

How to do it? Several people, including the president himself, have tentatively suggested a promising mechanism. Disperse the government from Washington to the heartland and beyond.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue took a small step in the right direction when he ordered that part of his department, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, be relocated to Missouri. But now Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have worked up that tentative suggestion into a real plan: Move a lot of Washington out of Washington.

They call their bill the HIRE Act, which is short for “Helping Infrastructure Restore the Economy.” They cleverly frame what they have in mind in the antiseptic language of wonkdom, calling for the relocation “of certain Federal agencies and permanent duty stations of employees of certain Federal agencies . . . 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.”

That may sound pretty anodyne, but wait: this is not a 30,000-foot white-paper operation. It has some very specific proposals, including the relocation of 10 cabinet departments out of D.C. Now we’re getting somewhere.

The Department of Transportation would go to Michigan. What a great idea! Maybe it would help Detroit recover its mojo.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development would go to Ohio. And why not? Ohio is nice state, centrally located.

The Department of Agriculture would go to Missouri. That’s Hawley’s state, and he might have picked Kansas for the sake of appearances, but you get the point. What does Washington know about growing anything, besides the deficit?

The Department of Education, which in my opinion should just be abolished, would be moved to Blackburn’s home state of Tennessee. Some people have objected that that is just “pork barrel” politics, but as James Pinkerton has observed, politics is what Washington, indeed, what humankind is all about. He helpfully quotes Aristotle to that effect—man, said the Stagerite, is preeminently zoon politikon, a political animal—so it is not surprising that there is a sense in which “everything to do with men, and women, is political.” Which means that, since “all government decisions are political,” the question of “pork” is “typically in the eye of the beholder.” Getting rid of the Department of Education would be best. But my view is apparently a minority opinion. So let’s go with second or third best: second best would be its relocation to Antarctica, if we could get the lease, but I’d be happy to concede that Tennessee would suit if the penguins or their lobby objected.

In Democracy in America, under the heading “Causes which mitigate the tyranny of the majority in the United States,” Alexis de Tocqueville lists “Absence of centralized administration.” Yes, a centralized government exists in the United States, Tocqueville acknowledges, but not a centralized administration. In the separate American states, Tocqueville explains, “the central government has never as yet busied itself except with a small number of objects, sufficiently prominent to attract its attention. The secondary affairs of society have never been regulated by its authority.”

Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s. What would he say today, when everything from the size of sodas to the materials from which the straws to drink them may be made to the designation of the toilets into which said sodas, suitably processed, may be deposited bear the grubby fingerprints of government regulation.

If, said Tocqueville, a democratic republic were to be founded in which a centralized administration had taken root and had “sunk deep into the habits and the laws of the people,” then

I do not hesitate to assert that in such a republic a more insufferable despotism would prevail than in any of the absolute monarchies of Europe; or, indeed, than any that could be found on this side of Asia.

Tocqueville was right. It all happened so gradually that, like the frog in the pot of slowly warming water, we never noticed the danger. Soon, the water that is the administrative state will be boiling and our liberties will have perished in all but name. One recalls Edmund Burke’s melancholy litotes, in another time of peril, that “it was soon discovered that the forms of a free, and the ends of an arbitrary Government, were things not altogether incompatible.”

On the contrary, they were not only not incompatible, the decadent, hollowed-out forms of freedom provide just the encouraging illusion that the partisans of despotism required to lull the populace.

In our day, anything that can be done to dismantle the Leviathan of the vast, unaccountable apparat of administrative overreach should be done. The Blackburn-Hawley plan is not the end of the story. But it might mark the beginning of a sunny new chapter. It’s time to get on with draining the swamp, emptying out those pots full of unwary frogs. Taking a good bit of “Washington” out of Washington is a good way to start.

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