Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) wants to do more than drain the swamp. He wants to dismantle it piece by piece and redistribute it to the rest of America.
Chaffetz, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, proposed a resolution that asserts it is unnecessary for federal agencies to be located in the District.
The committee debated the measure Wednesday and voted Friday 21 to 19 to advance the resolution to the full House.
The vote fell mostly along party lines. The only Republican to oppose the resolution was Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.), who noted James Madison favored consolidating government agencies in the capital.
The nonbinding resolution raised the ire of local Democratic lawmakers already fighting efforts by the Republican majority to intervene in the District’s local laws and policies pertaining to gun control, assisted suicide, subsidized abortion and legalized marijuana.
Chaffetz’s measure — which he called Divest D.C. — dovetails with President Trump’s federal hiring freeze and his calls to “drain the swamp.”
The House would have to pass the resolution for it to become the official position of that chamber.
Meanwhile, legislation that would require all federal agencies in the District to relocate their headquarters outside the metropolitan area was introduced last month by Reps. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) and Ted Budd (R-N.C.). It has yet to get a hearing.
With Divest D.C., Chaffetz argued that the economic development benefits associated with government jobs should be spread beyond the District. Advances in travel and technology make it easier for agency workers to do their jobs elsewhere, he said.
And the government could save money if it didn’t have to accommodate the District’s high cost of living, he argued.
“I do believe conceptually in my heart that if you want a government that is reflective of the people, they need to be closer to the people,” he said during the hearing. “What would it look like if the Department of Agriculture was maybe based in Oklahoma?” he said. “What if we had a Department of the Interior that was based in Utah or Colorado? What if the Department of Transportation was based in Los Angeles, for instance?”
Stephen S. Fuller, an economist at George Mason University who has tracked the local economy for decades, said that a relocation of government agencies to outside the D.C. region would have a devastating effect on the metropolitan area.
“Everybody’s here because of Uncle Sam. We have a rich uncle, and that’s what drives the economy,” he said.
In 2010, federal spending in the area peaked at $171 billion, including payments to retired federal workers, he said. Across-the-board federal budget cuts known as “sequestration” took a toll on the District, halting economic growth in 2012, compared with causing just a slowdown elsewhere in the country, he said.
“It was more like a bump in the road. Ours was a crater,” he said.
In the hearing, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting delegate, noted that 85 percent of federal workers live outside the D.C. region. She derided the resolution as bordering on “frivolous and laughable” and befitting a freshman lawmaker — not a seasoned committee chairman such as Chaffetz.
“I’m sorry, everybody, the framers decided — just like every other part of the world — there would be a capital and in the capital would be located the major agencies that run your government,” she said. “This resolution is unwarranted, and frankly it’s gratuitous and punitive.”
Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) called it ironic that Republicans say the city belongs to all of America but at the same time want to “strip the seat of government” of federal offices.
His Montgomery County district is home to the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, among others.
Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa), who supports Divest D.C., said the Department of Agriculture might better carry out its mission in the Midwest. “Most of its decisions impact farmers,” he said. “I have yet to see a cow or hog in Washington, D.C., or a corn plant or a soybean plant in D.C.”
That prompted Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who represents a Northern Virginia district home to tens of thousands of federal workers, to say, “Maybe the caption on this should be ‘Give me cows!’ ”
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) didn’t miss a beat: “We do see a lot of bull here, maybe not a lot of cows,” he said.
Connolly pressed ahead, calling the debate a waste of time intended to score political points in Republicans’ home districts.
He facetiously suggested that “maybe there’s good swampland in Louisiana,” where the government could cheaply relocate agencies.
Chaffetz bristled at the comments. “You better be a little careful about just calling Louisiana a bunch of swampland and disparaging other parts of the country,” he said.
At that point, Connolly interrupted, and they talked over each other until Chaffetz banged the gavel to retake the floor.
While it makes sense for security agencies, including the Pentagon and the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, to remain in the District, rank-and-file bureaucrats do not need to live in the nation’s capitol, Chaffetz said.
In Chaffetz’s home state, the federal government owns 70 percent of the land, and the Obama administration recently designated 1.3 million acres as the Bears Ears National Monument. He said his constituents would be better served if the officials who oversaw those holdings were closer.
“It’s very hard for them to understand why some desk jockey in D.C. gets to make decisions about what’s going on in their own back yard,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the resolution that was debated. If passed, the resolution would represent the official opinion of the House only, not the House and the Senate. This story has been updated.