Grover Norquist’s rather unpleasant concept of “the bathtub” remains a central tenet of the national Republican Party. And the consequences of employing it (the bathtub) as Norquist famously fantasized in an interview on National Public Radio in 2001 are demonstrated with each effort in that direction; they are — using another famous analogy — to put the foxes in charge of the hen house. It’s been happening ever since Donald Trump has been in the White House.
Norquist is the intentionally offensive founder of Americans for Tax Reform, which he started in 1985 at the request, he said, of President Ronald Reagan. Reagan is remembered for his inaugural pronouncement that “Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” Consistent with that viewpoint, Norquist told NPR, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
(Another Norquist gem: “Our goal is to inflict pain. It is not good enough to win; it has to be a painful and devastating defeat. … It is like when the king would take his opponent’s head and spike it on a pole for everyone to see.”)
It’s difficult to know what Trump really thinks about anything, besides his fixation on himself, but the conservative Republicans whom he has enabled are committed to reducing government’s role in almost every sphere of our national life — with the glaring exception of women’s and families’ reproductive choice.
Well, okay; that’s an ideology. Generally speaking, though, there are three forces contending for influence in each of these sectors: economic interests (businesses), social and public-interest groups (usually nonprofits), and government, which tends to be an amalgam of the first two. Because corporations have vastly more economic clout than nonprofits, when government steps back it is they who fill the void.
For several months, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been talking about relocating two of its agencies from USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C., to the Midwest. Originally, this was to have been accomplished in September. Staff pushback has not derailed the plan, but has delayed it to the end of the year. The Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture are to be moved to Kansas City, Missouri. The former is described as a statistical agency that studies and predicts industry trends. The latter funds research into such topics as the crisis facing our pollinator population.
The reasons given for transferring the agencies include getting them closer to where much of the country’s farming takes place, and creating better living conditions for staff by escaping Washington’s high costs of living and inconvenient urban commuting.
More likely, it seems, is that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and his senior staff want to get rid of those employees. The Economic Research Service, in particular, has committed the sin of providing objective analysis of Trump Administration policies, principally on tariffs (concluding they are largely harmful for agricultural producers) and the vaunted $1.5 trillion tax cuts passed early in Trump’s presidency. As reported by the New York Times, two ERS researchers published their conclusion that 70% to 80% of the benefits would go to the richest 1% of farm households.
And so, the USDA is picking up and moving halfway across the country. The employees can keep their jobs if they move, too, but indications are that most will choose not to upend their families by doing so.
The fiction that Perdue’s motive is to improve the workings of the department was debunked last week when Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, crowed to a meeting of South Carolina Republicans: “You’ve heard about drain the swamp… The USDA just moved two offices out of Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, MO. And guess what happened? More than half the people quit. Now, it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker. I know that because a lot of them work for me and I’ve tried and you can’t do it. By simply saying to people, you know what, we’re going to take you outside . . . this liberal haven of Washington, DC, and move out to the real part of the country, and they quit.”
Observers predict it will take 10 years for the agencies to recover their expertise, if they ever do. In the meantime, a retired veteran of the research unit told the Times, “The farmers and ranchers will be worse off, because there won’t be as much information on issues related to their livelihood.”
But that top 1%? They’ll be fine.