USDA News

After months of speculation, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced June 13 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would move the headquarters of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to the Kansas City region.

“Following a rigorous site selection process, the Kansas City region provides a win-win—maximizing our mission function by putting taxpayer savings into programmatic outputs and providing affordability, easy commutes, and extraordinary living for our employees,” Perdue said in the announcement. “The Kansas City region has proven itself to be hub for all things agriculture and is a booming city in America’s heartland. There is already a significant presence of USDA and federal government employees in the region, including the Kansas City ‘Ag Bank’ Federal Reserve. This agriculture talent pool, in addition to multiple land grant and research universities within driving distance, provides access to a stable labor force for the future. The Kansas City region will allow ERS and NIFA to increase efficiencies and effectiveness and bring important resources and manpower closer to all of our customers.” 

In a conference call with reporters, Perdue emphasized the move is the best way to make the USDA the “most effective, most efficient, customer-focused department in the federal government.” Part of that is that this relocation is expected to save nearly $300 million over a 15-year lease term in employment costs and rent, or about $20 million per year, which can be repurposed for research and other critical needs, he said.

Perdue said that there had been a plan on the table to realign the ERS under the office of Chief Economist, but now with this move that’s been put aside and ERS will now remain under the Research, Education and Economics Mission Area. This will all likely keep the policy-neutral reporting and perception of that neutrality that detractors had been upset over, following the initial announcement. The REE mission area is overseen and protected by a Senate-confirmed chief scientist and the REE undersecretary, whereas the OCE is tasked with supporting the secretary’s policies.

Responses vary

The announcement was met with cheers and jeers from various sectors.

U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran, R-KS, Pat Roberts, R-KS, Roy Blunt, R-MO, and Josh Hawley, R-MO, applauded the move. Moran referenced the animal health corridor from Columbia, Missouri, to Manhattan, Kansas, as well as the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility as reasons that the move makes sense.

Kansas Farm Bureau President Rich Felts said that this move means Kansas will remain at the forefront of agricultural research into the future.

Meanwhile, the American Statistical Association says this decision comes at a great cost to the nation by taking one of the “best agricultural economics research institution in the world” from Washington, D.C., where food and agricultural policy is made.

“The relocation disrupts the quality, breadth, and timeliness of ERS’ reports on topics ranging from trade and farm income to nutrition assistance and commodity projections to rural economies and food safety,” stated ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein in a release. In particular, the association is concerned that this is a move to undermine the work and integrity of USDA scientists and experts, opening the door to policymaking without the evidence-based USDA science.

Currently there is a bill in the U.S. House of Representative, the Agriculture Research Integrity Act, sponsored by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-ME, that would keep the ERS in Washington, D.C. When asked by reporters, Perdue said that relocation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its services is under the functions of the executive branch.

“This is a legitimate executive function, and while Congress has oversight of how we conduct business, relocation is under the executive branch,” Perdue said. And, thanks to the Founding Fathers, he added, there’s a natural tension between the two branches.

“We hope these issues are not precluded in that way,” Perdue said. “USDA doesn’t tell Congress how to run its business. We hope we are allowed to continue this move in minimal disruption.”

Timeline

The USDA is starting to transition employees from the current locations in the D.C. region to the Kansas City region over the next three months, with everyone in place by Sept. 1. However, they will be relocating to temporary office space in the Beacon Facility until the General Services Agency can arrange for permanent office space.

Perdue said the GSA should have requests for proposals out by July 1, with bids collected and a decision made by Aug. 1. And, it’s not yet clear if the new offices will be located on the Kansas or Missouri side of the river. That will depend on the state-provided incentives that could be offered.

“Having undergone a major relocation effort myself in the last couple of years, I understand that no one likes their cheese moved,” Perdue said, referencing the leadership book. “We’d like to thank the ERS and NIFA staffs for the jobs that they do. Some have expressed displeasure and that’s understandable. Those who choose to move, we think they’ll like it.

“And for those who stay in the National Capitol region, they have many choices,” he continued. “It’s not like we’re closing a company in rural America and the employees have no choices of other places to work. If you can’t move, there are other options here in Federal service, and there’s likely something for them as well. We’re doing this for the benefit of the two agencies.” 

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or jlatzke@hpj.com.

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