“You know, farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from a corn field,” said President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956.
That pretty much describes the bureaucracy at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. Although the big building on Independence Avenue is full of smart and well-meaning people, there’s no getting around the fact that they’re far removed from the regular business of farming.
It doesn’t have to be that way – at least not according to a couple of Republican senators, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. They’ve proposed moving the Department of Agriculture and nine other federal agencies outside the D.C. beltway and into the heart of America.
It’s a thought-provoking idea and it reminds me of what Norman Borlaug, the father of Green Revolution, said on his deathbed: “Take it to the farmer.”
What he was saying is that if we seek excellence in food security, everyone in the food chain must collaborate with the men and women who work the land. That’s what Dr. Borlaug did as a scientist who brought new technology to farms, boosting food production so much in the 1950s and 1960s that he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
The mission of taking it to the farmer continues today, involving not just the scientists who innovate but also regulators whose rules and mandates impact what happens to farmers a thousand miles away.
The Hawley-Blackburn bill calls for moving the Department of Agriculture into the middle of the country: Missouri. Other departments would go elsewhere: Commerce to Pennsylvania, Education to Tennessee, Energy to Kentucky, Health and Human Services to Indiana, Housing and Urban Development to Ohio, Interior to New Mexico, Labor to West Virginia, Transportation to Michigan, and Veterans Affairs to South Carolina.
They wouldn’t relocate to just anywhere within these states, but rather into economically depressed regions. The bill’s sponsors pitch their legislation as a kind of jobs program. They call it the HIRE Act, which stands for “Helping Infrastructure Restore the Economy.”
That’s fine, but the main benefit would come from putting regulators into proximity with the people whose lives and businesses they regulate. It makes sense for the Department of Agriculture to have its headquarters in a big farm state such as Missouri, and it also makes sense to move Interior to New Mexico, where it’s closer to the western lands that occupy so much of its time.
Under this plan, federal regulators would become more likely to have firsthand knowledge and even experience with the policies they adopt and enforce: An official at Agriculture will have grown up on a farm or maybe live on one, a bureaucrat at Interior will be married to a rancher, and a deputy assistant secretary at Transportation will have a brother who works on an automotive assembly line.
This would be a government ‘of the people.’something that is increasingly lacking in the administrative centers of Washington, D.C.
Before the advent of air travel and telecommunications, I understand how it made sense to cluster federal agencies in Washington. In the 21st century, however, technology enables us to do so much more – and to take advantage of a truly federal system, which seeks to disperse the power of government.
The Trump administration appears to understand the principle: The headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management soon will move to Grand Junction, Colorado, and a couple of the Department of Agriculture’s research agencies are shifting to Kansas City, Missouri.
The Hawley-Blackburn bill could attract bipartisan support. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, for example, also has proposed moving agencies out of Washington. There are also several liberal-leaning think tanks and journalists who have expressed favor for the concept.
So this creative idea deserves serious consideration and debate, along with another line from Eisenhower. “The proper role of government,” he said, “is that of partner with the farmer – never his master.”
Let’s seize a chance to take it to the farmer, as well as everybody else who has a stake in the decisions that we ought to make closer to the people.
An edited version of this op-ed was previously published in the Wall Street Journal November 30, 2019