Last August, USDA inserted a somewhat unusual notice in the Federal Register. (https://www.federalregister.gov/…) As the official journal of the U.S. government, the place where regulations and proposed regulations are published, the Federal Register isn't normally an easy read. It's full of lengthy documents written in legalese. This USDA notice was just three pages long and it was written in everyday English.
The notice was unusual in another way. Although it was proposing to take a radical step -- moving the Economic Research Service and the National Institute on Food and Agriculture out of Washington, D.C. -- it made scant effort to justify the move. The closest it came to stating a reason was a short phrase in a single sentence citing the opportunity to move the agencies "closer to its (sic) customers and facilitate economic development in Rural America."
You'd think that before relocating two important agencies with more than 600 highly trained employees the government would have done some serious analysis, carefully weighing the pros and cons. There's no evidence the Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and his team did that.
Instead, the notice leapt immediately into soliciting expressions of interest to house the two agencies. It spelled out what USDA is looking for in the way of new sites -- an airport nearby, a pool of qualified talent, low costs, a good quality of life for employees and sufficient information-technology infrastructure to allow secure communications with Washington. It prescribed a format for expressing interest -- "no more than five pages using 12-point font," including a map.
As DTN has reported, the notice came under heavy fire from a variety of groups, including former heads of the agencies and of other statistical agencies, like the Census Bureau. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…) One of the critics' biggest concerns is the potential loss of experienced talent from the agencies, based on an expectation that many employees would quit rather than move. The Union of Concerned Scientists noted that the Trump administration had earlier proposed slashing the ERS budget in half and charged that "These changes are yet another example of the Trump administration's attempts to weaken scientific integrity in policymaking." (https://www.dtnpf.com/…)
Some of this criticism was probably inevitable, but announcing the moves without providing cost-benefit details or offering an opportunity for public comment fanned the flames. Still, shaping the notice as a request for expressions of interest may have been a brilliant move tactically.
Within a month, USDA announced that it had received 136 of those expressions of interest. Those expressions changed the political dynamics of the discussion.
On Jan. 3, the day Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson took the helm of the House Agriculture Committee, he was quoted by Politico expressing his view of the USDA proposal. "I don't think it's a good idea; I'm not for it," Peterson said. "But I don't think I can do anything about it."
That sounds curious because if anyone could do something about this relocation, it would be the chair of the House Agriculture Committee. In December, several Democratic Congressmen introduced a bill to block the move. Couldn't Peterson be helpful in getting that legislation passed?
And yet, at second glance, the chairman's comment isn't so curious. However much they might doubt the wisdom of the relocations, would the Congressmen representing the 136 locales that expressed interest vote against the possibility that theirs might be the one to win the bidding? If and when Congress gets a chance to vote, it will be interesting to watch how this unfolds.
Personally, I am with those who are against the moves. I actually like the idea of locating parts of the government outside Washington. I just think these are the wrong agencies to move.
If the aim is to get government closer to its customers, ERS is already as close as it can get. The customers for its analyses of food and agricultural issues aren't farmers. They're Congressional and executive branch decision makers.
NIFA awards research grants, which is a good reason it should not be located on a university campus, where its proximity to one group of grant applicants would raise concerns about favoritism. NIFA needs a neutral home with close links to other parts of USDA. Like, say, Washington, D.C.
If USDA wants to move agencies closer to farmers, it has any number whose customers really are farmers. Memo to Secretary Perdue: Move one of those, not ERS and NIFA.
Urban Lehner can be reached at email@example.com