Ag Policy Blog

ERS Move: Goal to Cut Agency's Budget, Staff and Research

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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USDA's Whitten Building in Washington, D.C. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is pushing to move the Economic Research Service to Kansas City, Mo., as a way to cut the agency's staff in half. (DTN file photo)

The union representing employees from the Economic Research Service cited that roughly two-thirds of more than 200 employees being reassigned from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Mo., won't go.

That is exactly what USDA leaders want and what the Trump administration budgeted to happen. USDA's proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2020 that ERS would lose half its employees during the year.

At the end of last September, ERS had 319 full-time employees. The White House budget proposal for FY 2020 set the budget for 160 staff, a cut of 159 jobs for the agency.

The FY 2020 budget is set to start Oct. 1, or when Congress completes appropriations for the year. Democrats have a rider in the House appropriations bill to block the ERS move, but the relocation likely will happen before Congress passes its final FY 2020 appropriations.

The Trump administration proposed FY 2020 budget for ERS was $60.5 million for 160 staff and a $26.7 million budget cut from FY 2019.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced earlier this month that 250 ERS employees had to move to Kansas City, Mo., before Sept. 30. Of those who are scheduled for the move, 69% told the union they are not moving, and as many as 87% might not do so.

Kevin Hunt, acting vice president for the American Federal Government Employees Local 3403, representing the ERS staff, said the move puts pressure on the work and is forcing many ERS economists to look for new jobs.

"The current and projected attrition will curtail research data product that encompass commodity estimates, agricultural sector forecasts, food and farm economics and statistical indicators for U.S. agriculture, conservation, and food policy and markets," Hunt said.

That's largely what's expected. Other than USDA seeking $15.5 million to move most of its employees out of D.C., USDA detailed several cuts to research areas to lower the overall ERS budget by $26.7 million.

USDA characterizes ERS as "a federal intermural research and statistical organization," meant to achieve five goals around research, coordination and long-term policy and national goals.

The budget plan called for cutting 72 staff economists who focus on agricultural markets, trade, farms conservation and agricultural research and development. Areas where ERS would drop research including, "drought resilience, new energy sources (including bioenergy, renewable energy and shale oil and gas) local and regional food markets, beginning farmers and ranchers, invasive species and markets for environmental services."

ERS would also eliminate 67 staff focusing on the nutrition and food assistance area. USDA leaders want ERS to stop all research into USDA food and nutrition programs, and on food consumption and nutrition.

In another area, ERS would drop 20 staffers and, "discontinue research relative to farm, conservation and trade policy, and on investment and agricultural research and development. ERS will also discontinue its annual estimates of international food security for low- and middle-income-countries, and research on international development that supports this activity."

ERS also would discontinue all research and statistics into the rural economy.

ERS would discontinue all research and data related to food safety.

ERS would also discontinue all research and data efforts related to food safety, shifting that information to NIFA and the Agricultural Research Service.

An ERS employee told DTN the elimination of research, and shipping economists out of Washington, D.C., will make it easier for policymakers to ignore issues in rural America. ERS economists are frequently briefing staff on Capitol Hill, U.S. trade leaders, and other agencies about their findings. Under the relocation and budget cuts, that largely goes away.

"We're here in D.C. not because this is the best place for ag, we're here because the policymakers are here and they need some decent information about what is going on in agriculture and rural America," the economist told DTN.

The board for the National Farmers Union has voted unanimously twice to express their concern about the loss of expertise at ERS, and concerns about retribution at USDA against the agency because of studies on SNAP or climate change.

"This is an administration that doesn't like science that doesn’t agree with their viewpoint," said Roger Johnson, president of NFU. "What we're setting up for is an era where you aren't going to get the quality of research or the volume of research that we had before. You can't take an agency and have the vast majority of employees quit and expect you are going to staff it up overnight."

Despite NFU's advocacy, Johnson noted there's a largely presumption in agriculture that it good to get bureaucracy out of Washington and into somewhere else. Research also never makes the top priorities for most agricultural groups. "There is always something that is a bigger crisis rather than the long-term needs that get addressed by research."

USDA's 2020 plan for ERS https://www.obpa.usda.gov/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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