In 2016, the Trump campaign drew national attention to the problem of geographic wealth concentration, and the issue has only grown in importance since then. Cities have always been the centers of wealth creation, and when businesses choose to gather there, little can be done about it. But when government contributes to the disparity—as it has in concentrating wealth and power in the D.C. area—the people are justified in demanding change.
Last month, Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee introduced the Helping Infrastructure Restore the Economy (HIRE) Act, which would relocate nearly all of the employees of ten executive departments to regions of the country that need the jobs more. The bill (full text here) builds on a growing sentiment against Washington draining all of the nation’s wealth into one place.
Jeb Bush talked about this in 2015 and President Trump has made some swamp-draining moves in this direction. Even some Democrats, including presidential candidate Andrew Yang, see the wisdom of spreading federal employment more evenly. Hawley and Blackburn’s bill is the firmest step yet in achieving the goal.
The federal government expanded dramatically in the past century whether Republicans or Democrats were in charge, and much of that growth has been in Washington. The sleepy capital of Abraham Lincoln’s time grew to a small city by the early twentieth century. It ended the millennium as a sprawling metropolis and has only grown vaster since. The fuel to all of that growth has been your tax dollars.
Some of the jobs created there concern tasks that we all agree are important. Others are in areas best left to the states or the private sector. But one thing they all share is that they are located in offices in the D.C. area. The wealth of a nation, collected in taxes from every city and town, is poured out into a small section of the country that has quickly become its richest region.
How rich? In the most recent American Community Survey, the Census Department reported that the five richest counties (or county-equivalents) in America were all suburbs of Washington. Of the top 20 counties, ten are suburbs of D.C. There is a tremendous agglomeration of wealth there and it’s only getting richer. Taken as a whole, the metro area is the richest on the east coast and third-richest in the country, with an average household income of $95,843, compared to a nationwide average of $57,617.
Other areas of the country have wealth concentrations, too, but none as deep as D.C.’s. And all of those other areas have better reasons for being rich. New York has been the center of global finance for a century. Silicon Valley is home to companies that produce many of our great technological innovations.
But what does Washington produce? What do they make that should attract so much wealth? Nothing. The industry there is not fueled by willing consumers, only the involuntary transactions of taxing and spending.
It’s the 20th Century, Ya’ll
The money has to go somewhere, and in the early days of the federal government’s expansion that place almost certainly had to be D.C. People worked in offices and the offices had to be near each other.
But that’s not true anymore. The federal government has actually been an industry leader in telecommuting, one rare occasion in which they have outpaced the private sector. There is no reason for every government employee to sit in an office eight hours a day. Even when there is a need, advances in telecommunications mean that office can be anywhere with an internet connection.
Hawley and Blackburn’s bill goes beyond theory, naming ten departments to be moved and designating the states to which they would be relocated. They are: Commerce (Pennsylvania), Energy (Kentucky), Health and Human Services (Indiana), Housing and Urban Development (Ohio), Interior (New Mexico), Labor (West Virginia), Transportation (Michigan), and the Veterans Administration (South Carolina). Making the list shows that they actually want this to happen and are exercising Congress’s power to decide things, rather than leaving it up to the executive branch to work out the details.
We can quibble about the choices, but they are Congress’s choices to make. If this bill passes and is sent to the president’s desk for signature, some of the locations may have been changed in the process. But just about any place in America is poorer and more in need of jobs than Washington.
The government would also benefit from being able to hire workers from more areas of the country, adding diverse experience to the bureaucracy. Labor and rent costs are lower outside D.C., too, adding to taxpayer savings.
Smart Opportunity to Slim Government
The government gains local experience, taxpayers save money, and distressed areas add high-paying, long-term jobs. The HIRE Act is a winning solution to a lot of different problems. But Hawley and Blackburn offer even more than that in their proposed bill. It also includes a rare opportunity to consolidate and reduce the federal payroll.
While deciding the exact jobs to be moved, the HIRE Act directs the Commerce Department to “determine whether the covered agency should be abolished or merged with another Executive agency, rather than being relocated.” This offers a much-needed opportunity to reform the federal bureaucracy at every level.
Consider the cabinet. Once the brain trust of the executive branch, it now is an oversized boardroom that figures only ceremonially in the president’s decision-making process. Lincoln’s famous “Team of Rivals” cabinet was once the norm in America. It had just seven members, all of whom were eminent men before joining it.
The same could be said of most 19th- and early 20th-century cabinets. The current cabinet has 22 offices, some held by important figures, others by non-entities. A consolidated cabinet would be a far more effective advisory body for the president.
Travelling down the organization chart, there are other opportunities for consolidation. Efforts that are duplicated across agencies could be consolidated. Positions left temporarily unfilled during relocation might be found to be unnecessary. Decades of deficit spending and baseline budgeting have left the bureaucracy bloated. The HIRE Act gives us the opportunity to figure out where cuts could be made.
Although the bill’s sponsors are both Republicans, this is a concept with bipartisan appeal. People across the country would benefit by these jobs and the taxpayers would save money in the process. Reducing regional disparities, using tax dollars more efficiently, and creating jobs in underserved communities—all are concepts that should find widespread support. The HIRE Act is common-sense legislation that will benefit the whole country and drain the swamp in the process.