Hawley, railing about DC elitism, calls for moving 10 federal agencies into heartland

After several days of railing against Washington elitists on social media, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley introduced a bill Wednesday to move 10 federal agencies out of the nation’s capital.

The measure follows the Missouri Republican’s attack on a Washington Post piece Monday by a former federal data scientist criticizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan to move hundreds of jobs to the Kansas City region. Hawley spent two days feuding with journalists on social media for their alleged elitism.

President Donald Trump’s administration announced in June that it would move two USDA agencies, the Economic Research Service and National Institute for Food and Agriculture, to the Kansas City area.

The administration has yet to disclose whether the roughly 550 federal jobs will be based in Kansas or Missouri. USDA headquarters will remain in Washington.

Under Hawley’s proposal, 90 percent of the USDA’s workforce would move to Missouri and an additional nine other federal agencies would relocate their headquarters to “economically distressed” areas.

“It’s such an insular place and people forget that there’s a vast country out there and there’s lots of places in the country that aren’t like D.C. and haven’t seen gobs of money poured in,” Hawley said in an interview on Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon.

“I mean, this town’s doing great. This town always does great because there’s gobs of money that gets poured into this town. But there’s a lot of places in our state and other states that haven’t seen a lot of investment, that haven’t seen a lot of jobs.”

Hawley said the additional USDA jobs he wants to move to the state wouldn’t necessarily go to Kansas City, explaining that a bidding process could take place to determine the best location.

Under Hawley’s proposal, several agencies would land in swing states critical to the presidential race. Pennsylvania would become home to the Department of Commerce, the Department of Transportation would relocate to Michigan and Ohio would host the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Department of Interior would migrate to New Mexico.

The rest of the states in Hawley’s plan are solidly Republican.

Tennessee, the home of Hawley’s GOP co-sponsor Sen. Marsha Blackburn, would receive the Department of Education. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky would get the Department of Energy.

The Department of Health and Human Services would go to Indiana, while the Veterans Administration would move to South Carolina and the Department of Labor would relocate to West Virginia.

“We think about local synergies in places that have some connection to the department, to the industries that the departments regulate,” Hawley said when asked how he made these selections. “And also No. 2, places that have maybe suffered some economic distress, where federal investment would be meaningful.”

A crippled agency?

For months USDA employees have been outspoken in their opposition to the move to Kansas City. Dozens protested by turning their back on Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue at a June staff meeting where he announced the plan. The bulk of the staff in these agencies have opted against making the move.

The American Federation of Government Employees panned Hawley’s proposal as “a solution in search of a problem” and noted that 85 percent of federal employees already live outside of the capital.

USDA employees have repeatedly objected to uprooting their families since the move to Kansas City was announced.

Laura Dodson, the acting vice president of the union for the Economic Research Service, said Hawley’s bill overlooks the benefits of locating a segment of the federal workforce in Washington to foster collaboration with lawmakers. She said the move to Kansas City has resulted in a 90 percent attrition rate for the staff being asked to relocate.

“The loss of staff has crippled USDA’s ability to help America’s farmers and ranchers with the many complex issues they are facing,” Dodson said in an email.

“We need to drop the narrative that moving around 200,000 workers out of Washington would be an instant solution to the problems of rural development. We cannot keep using dedicated federal civil servants as pawns in a larger political game.”

Andrew Crane-Droesch, a data scientist who left the agency in the face of the planned move, argued in The Post that the Trump administration of using the move to purge USDA staff whose research on climate change and other issues conflicts with White House policy.

“They (USDA staff) weren’t willing to uproot their families, sacrifice their spouses’ careers, or in some cases disrupt their medical treatment, for an agency that remained firmly in Trump’s crosshairs,” he wrote.

Hawley panned Crane-Droesch’s article and framed the unwillingness to move to Kansas City as elitism.

“I assume this is a parody, right? DC bureaucrats aren’t actually saying out loud that moving to Missouri is ... punishment, are they? Because surely nobody could be that condescending & elitist,” Hawley said on Twitter.

In an email, Crane-Droesch said Hawley’s “outrage is contrived, and is based on selective quoting of my piece.”

He said that if Perdue thought moving the USDA agencies to Kansas City was the best way to carry out their missions he would have allowed the move to happen over the course of several years and given current employees the option to stay where they were.

Hawley said his proposal to move even more federal workers out of Washington was not aimed at forcing current federal workers out of their jobs. He also said his office was developing the policy prior to his Twitter fights this week.

“Look, I understand if families don’t want to move. They’re not being forced to, they don’t have to. But I think that this attitude that we have seen in the press that Missouri is a terrible place to live, that it’s a form of punishment, that was basically the message of the editorial in The Washington Post that I took exception to,” Hawley said.

“This isn’t Siberia. Missouri is a wonderful place... My bill with Sen. Blackburn this isn’t to punish civil servants. This is actually to make the government more efficient and to give also these regions opportunities,” Hawley said.

Hawley’s elite background

Hawley’s attacks Crane-Droesch led to an escalating series of Twitter skirmishes with Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent and CNN anchor Jake Tapper.

Sargent accused Hawley of “phony pastoral posturing,” while Hawley called the columnist “a smug, rich liberal elitist.”

In a blog post, Sargent described his background as the son of a cab driver in New York who attended public schools and grew up in a diverse neighborhood.

“Hawley can reach for the ‘elitist’ charge so easily because it’s largely performative. It’s centered on a conception of middle class virtue that lives or dies on being from ‘the heartland’ — rural and exurban Red America — and on holding the suite of conservative nationalist values that are actually being rejected by a vast swath of the real American mainstream,” Sargent wrote.

Other commentators pointed to Hawley’s own elite background as a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School who served as a clerk for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts before launching his political career. Former Sen. Claire McCaskill’s campaign lawyer, Chuck Hatfield, pointed out that Hawley had been unwilling to move to Jefferson City during his tenure as Missouri attorney general.

“Smug, Elitist Senator Attacks Middle-Class Journalist As a Smug Elitist,” said the New York magazine headline about Hawley’s exchange with Sargent.

In a series of tweets, Hawley maintained that he was motivated by a love for his home state.

“For defending my home state of Missouri, liberal media have called me ‘phony,’ ‘ugly,’ ‘smarmy,’ a racist and now an anti-Semite. All in 24 hrs. This is how they bully those who aren’t part of the DC club. But I don’t care what slurs they use, I will ALWAYS defend Missouri,” he said.

Related stories from McClatchy DC

Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
Support my work with a digital subscription