An Urban's Rural View

USDA Makes a Good Idea Look Bad

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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There is, in the abstract, no reason why every federal agency must be located in Washington, D.C. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, has operated quite successfully in Atlanta for decades. In this era of Skype and Zoom, when face-to-face conversations can span continents, geographic concentration is less important than ever.

Were pollsters to ask the public's view, I assume most Americans would agree with this. They'd especially agree if told that a location outside the Beltway would save taxpayers money and put an agency closer to the citizens it serves.

Assuming my assumptions are correct, you have to wonder: Why has USDA attracted so much criticism for moving the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Kansas City? How could an idea that seems so unobjectionable in the abstract be so controversial when someone tries to turn it into to reality?

One possible answer is partisanship. In Congress, at least, the critics have been Democrats while Republicans have mostly held their tongues. The problem with this explanation is that outside Congress the criticism has been far more widespread. As one Congressional Democrat noted in an op-ed piece for The Hill, "Nearly 110 agriculture science and food related organizations, at least 37 deans of university agriculture departments, several former government officials, and more than 1150 individual scientists from 47 states publicly oppose the move." (…)

A more credible answer is that however good the idea, USDA has not done a good job of executing it. As I pointed out in a previous post (…), USDA announced the move without making any serious effort to justify it. Congressmen pleaded with USDA to share its financial analysis. USDA stonewalled them. Moreover, rather than moving public servants closer to the public they serve, USDA chose to move two agencies whose "customers" aren't farmers. Their customers are in Washington, D.C.

Worse, USDA appeared to be trying to do an end run around Congressional budget writers. Almost from the outset the current administration has been proposing to cut ERS's budget in half. Congress has refused to go along. It was entirely predictable that by relocating the agency, more than half of its employees would quit rather than move. That is, as DTN's Chris Clayton has pointed out, exactly what happened. (…) Maybe USDA didn't intend an end run, but it sure looks like one.

Still worse, USDA's beef with ERS appeared to be political. Having read a fair bit of ERS research over the years, I have found most of it pretty objective. The administration viewed it differently, critics think. As Roger Johnson, the president of the National Farmers Union, told Chris, "This is an administration that doesn't like science that doesn't agree with their viewpoint."

Surveying this history, you don't have to be a Democrat to have questions. And there's one other thing to question now that USDA has ordered employees to the agencies' new home in Kansas City. According to the Washington Post, "Workers who agreed to move must do so by Sept. 30, although USDA has not established permanent office space and has not said whether the agencies will be located on the Missouri or Kansas side of the Kansas City area." (…)

Have you ever been to Kansas City? My wife comes from there and we go back frequently. It's a wonderful city. Great professional baseball and football teams, great art and other museums, great restaurants. Affordable housing, good schools.

But -- and this is a big "but" if you're moving there -- Kansas City sprawls. The metropolitan area extends over two states and 15 counties, nearly 8,000 square miles. It can take an hour or more by car to get from one end of it to the other. USDA employees who accept the transfer will have to select housing without knowing where they'll eventually be working. If they guess wrong, they could face years of taxing commutes.

As a thought experiment, imagine USDA had proposed moving agencies that directly serve farmers to the heart of the Corn Belt instead of ERS and NIFA to Kansas City. Imagine that in announcing the move it had released a detailed financial analysis demonstrating the benefits to taxpayers. Imagine it had tried to make the transfers as painless as possible for employees. If it had done things this way, criticism would surely have been mild.

Maybe the administration doesn't care if it's criticized. It should care. If it's serious about moving government closer to the people, it should go about it in a way that earns public support. It's a pity that instead it seems intent on discrediting a good idea.

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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