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A Republican Proposal to Feed the Country to the Swamp

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Moving federal agencies to the heartland would get struggling states hooked on big government.

Progressives dream of making the District of Columbia into a state, but now a pair of Republican senators have the same vision reflected through a funhouse mirror. The Helping Infrastructure Restore the Economy Act would effectively transform 10 states into D.C. by moving at least 90% of jobs from 10 executive departments out of Washington and into “economically distressed regions” across the country.

The bill’s sponsors, Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, would send the Agriculture and Education departments to their respective states. Eight other federal departments and most nondepartment agencies would also be dispersed throughout the land, often to places intended to suit their functions—for example, the Transportation Department would be sent to Michigan to be near the auto industry.

Imagine the clamoring this would ignite among the states for the dozens of agencies on the move. Within each state, every hamlet will vie to host at least a “branch,” like the post offices that linger on in disuse in the internet age.

The only understandable part of this plan is conservatives’ visceral desire for revenge. People across the county can see the massive houses Washington bureaucrats and consultants occupy, walled off in single-party strongholds like Fairfax, Va. Mr. Hawley is right that “Americans’ hard-earned tax dollars fund federal agencies that are mainly located in the D.C. bubble . . . too removed from the rest of America,” and that most people “lack equal access to those jobs.”

But since when did Republicans accept the idea that the federal government ought to be a premier job creator? The GOP insisted for decades that many New Deal agencies and subsequent government bodies should never have been created in the first place, and that their red tape and interference is a dominant cause of economic inefficiency. Consider the department Mr. Hawley wants to bring home. The American Farm Bureau Federation reports that nearly 40% of U.S. farm income in 2019 will come from “trade aid, disaster assistance, the farm bill and insurance indemnities”—much of which is largess from the Agriculture Department that keeps farmers dependent and uncompetitive.

One might expect such a plan from Democrats, who are quick to name federal spending as the solution to every problem. Republicans are supposed to understand the unseen mechanics of redistribution, aware that taxpayer money paid to government employees in their states is taken from taxpayers nationwide, a drag on the economy of the entire country.

It will be impossible to uproot or at least prune the bureaucracy once its seeds are spread to every state. And the new federal jobs in each state wouldn’t likely go to locals. One main criterion for a relocation site is “a low rate of education,” so expect a stream of college-educated professionals to move to the South and Midwest to claim the positions.

The HIRE Act pays lip service to the ideal of cutting government by directing the General Services Administration and Office of Management and Budget to ascertain whether each agency slated for relocation “should be abolished or merged with another Executive agency, rather than being relocated.” But conservatives have been led up this road before. President Trump kicked off his presidency with an “executive branch restructuring” project to be overseen by the OMB. How many agencies did that eliminate? You know the answer.

Republicans used to seethe when Democrats tried to move federal offices. In the early 1990s, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich fumed that Sen. Robert Byrd’s campaign to transfer certain national intelligence facilities to West Virginia was a “pure abuse of power.”

Now Mrs. Blackburn cheerily says in a statement: “Federal jobs provide economic stability and encourage regional growth. When the FBI moved the Criminal Justice Information Services Center to Clarksburg, WV, the stable stream of revenue from those jobs boosted the local economy and helped it grow.”

Mr. Hawley’s role in this campaign is particularly vexing. He has become a famous critic of Big Tech, but the federal bureaucracy is already vastly larger and more intrusive than the software companies he disparages and targets through legislation.

Would legislators from the “lucky” chosen states ever have the gumption to slash funding from agencies that employ thousands of their constituents and pay them generously? The HIRE Act would tie Middle America inextricably to big progressive government, remaking America in Washington’s image. The bill’s supposed decentralization would be anything but.

Americans need policy makers to discipline the arrogance that prevails inside the Beltway, not spread it. A better bill to restructure the government would freeze hiring for federal jobs. Such an effort would cut agencies’ spending and streamline their functions.

In contrast, the HIRE Act would create “Swamp 2.0”: just as deep and many times as wide.

Originally published at The Wall Street Journal.