The Donald Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service under the Office of the Chief Economist and to move most of the employees of ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, underscoring official Washington’s once bipartisan attitude toward agriculture is coming further apart, was evident at a March 27 House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing.

In an opening statement, House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Sanford Bishop, D-GA, said that since Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s announcement about the moves, “this committee has heard from many, many stakeholders. But to date, there has been little or no debate about this proposal in a public forum. Further, despite multiple requests for information, USDA has moved ahead. At the moment, there are far more questions than answers.

“This is not for lack of trying on our part. Since the proposal was announced last August, we have sent written communications and held phone calls and meetings with USDA and Secretary Perdue himself, asking for more information. We continued to air our concerns about lack of justification for the proposal and a cost-benefit analysis showing this was a good move. I cosponsored a bill to stop this move and we included report language in the 2019 omnibus. All that to no avail as USDA continued to ignore us and move forward.”

The USDA is expected to make a decision in May. 

Smudged reputation?

Bishop said he is worried that the method for rolling this proposal out and the lack of clear, transparent communication with ERS and NIFA employees has already done irreversible damage to the department’s reputation.

“How will the department attract and retain highly qualified staff to ERS and NIFA if its current workforce loses trust in its leadership?” Bishop asked.

Bishop added that he considers the decision to move ERS from under the Office of the Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics to the Office of the Chief Economist “simply a bad idea.”

Meanwhile, Kristi Boswell, senior adviser to Perdue, testified that the administration is proceeding with the plan under which ERS would keep 76 jobs in Washington and relocate 253 positions, while NIFA would retain just 20 employees in D.C. and move 315 to the new site. Those numbers are based on currently appropriated positions. President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget calls for slashing the full-time ERS workforce in half, from about 330 positions to 160.

GOP members support move

As the hearing proceeded, 30 House Republicans—including all Republican members of the House Agriculture Committee—sent the appropriators a letter supporting the moves.

“We believe relocating ERS and NIFA would build upon USDA’s capacity and improve the agency’s ability to recruit top talent from universities across the nation while being closer to rural America and reducing taxpayer expenditures,” the Republican House members said.

“Key functions of the USDA such as the Agricultural Research Service and the National Agricultural Statistics Service are already located outside of the Washington, D.C. area and have a strong track record of providing quality service to America’s farmers, ranchers, rural communities, and research and extension stakeholders. We believe relocating ERS and NIFA would build upon USDA’s capacity and improve the agency’s ability to recruit top talent from universities across the nation while being closer to rural America and reducing taxpayer expenditures.

“We commend the secretary for his commitment that no ERS or NIFA employee will be involuntarily separated during this transition, and that employees will be offered relocation assistance and will receive the same base pay as before. We also appreciate USDA’s notice and attention to its important research, extension, and education mission. It is clear that the secretary remains committed to mission-delivery both during this transition and once the relocation effort is complete,” the House Republicans said.

In his questioning Bishop told Boswell, “It seems like you’re turning your head and refusing to look at existing plans” to move ERS and NIFA into other USDA buildings as their leases expire or into rented office space. You don’t have any data that says you’re losing employees because of the cost of living.”

Boswell replied, “We don’t see a compelling argument why analysis at the global level can’t be done outside of Washington.” She did not respond directly to a question from Bishop about how the relocation would improve U.S. food and agriculture research.

Consultant retained

The USDA will pay $340,000 to Ernst and Young, a consultancy headquartered in London, to help find the new homes for the agencies. At the moment, at least 68 sites are under consideration. Most of them are in the Midwest and Plains. A shorter list of candidates is expected in the coming days, Boswell said, for consideration during April.

Not all Republicans are totally behind Perdue’s relocation proposal. For example, Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, R-MD, said USDA’s “middle list” of possible locations includes two sites close to Washington—College Park and Montgomery County—but none in the more rural areas of his state.

Harris also questioned if Ernst and Young was right for the job.

“You’re asking people from Washington and New York to judge the ability to move something to a rural area,” Harris told Boswell.

Four former USDA officials told Bishop’s subcommittee that the relocations would be wasteful. Former ERS chief John Lee said there was “no evidence it will be better.” Katherine Smith Evans, also a former ERS administrator, said that Washington “is where the market is for economic analysts,” contrary to Perdue’s description of college towns as the USDA’s prime recruiting grounds. Also opposing the relocations were Gale Buchanan and Catherine Woteki, who served as undersecretary for research in the Bush and Obama administrations, respectively.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or ldreiling@hpj.com.

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