Washington Insider -- Thursday

Tensions at the Economic Research Service

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

US and Japan Ink Partial Trade, Boosting US Ag Access

President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed a trade deal that covers agriculture and digital trade between the two countries in New York. But the agreement does not cover a huge portion of the U.S.-Japan relationship – autos.

Under the agreement, some $7.2 billion in U.S. ag goods will get improved access to the Japanese market, access equal to what would have resulted from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. After the deal is in place, more than 90 percent of U.S. ag goods will be able to go to Japan with more-favorable terms.

As for autos, that was kept out of the agreement. The issue had become a sticking point and prompted some downbeat expectations Tuesday for success. But jettisoning auto provisions helped seal the agreement signed by the two leaders in New York.

Most U.S. ag groups welcomed the deal and several indicated they looked forward to being on the same page as supplier from other countries that are part of the successor to TPP.


Mixed Signals Continue from Trump on China Trade Deal Prospects

President Donald Trump Wednesday again shifted his commentary on the U.S.-China trade situation, proclaiming that an agreement between the two sides could come faster than most think.

"They want to make a deal very badly... It could happen sooner than you think," Trump told reporters in New York. He said China was trying to be nice to him and added to reporters: “I was nice to them.” Later on Wednesday, Trump commented, "We're having some very good conversations.”

He continued his positive tone, stating, "China is starting to buy our agricultural product again. They’re starting to go with the beef and all of the different things, pork, very big on pork."

But as he has shown previously, he followed up by commenting, “The question is, do we want to make a deal?”

His Wednesday remarks stand in contrast to the harsh words he delivered at the UN on Tuesday. “Not only has China declined to adopt promised reforms, it has embraced an economic model dependent on massive market barriers, heavy state subsidies, currency manipulation, product dumping, forced technology transfers and the theft of intellectual property and also trade secrets on a grand scale,” Trump said.

So the U.S.-China trade situation continues to marked by comments that at times are positive only to be followed by up remarks that quickly dampen hopes this trade issue is going to be resolved soon.

Washington Insider: Tensions at the Economic Research Service

A political fight at USDA that has spanned decades has broken out once again, and seems as controversial as ever, Politico is reporting this week. It involves the former Bureau of Agricultural Economics and its modern derivative, the Economic Research Service.

Most reports about ERS history see 1961 as its beginning but its roots go back much further, even to the 1905 Office of Farm Management – which later became the Bureau of Agricultural Economics. That bureau was charged with analyzing USDA’s depression-era programs and became USDA’s “central planning agency” for policy and analysis of policy impacts.

In 1953, the incoming administration shifted BAE’s policy planning efforts to an administrative office and reassigned most of its research to operating agencies. It was reestablished as a separate agency, the Economic Research Service, in 1961 where it has operated since.

The agency sees its responsibility as conducting sound, peer-reviewed economic research – including the anticipation of issues that are on the horizon, as well as a broad range of statistical indicators that gauge the health of the ag and rural sector. These are used by the White House and other USDA agencies and many others across the nation. Most of the agency’s work is conducted in Washington, DC – its 2018 activities report said that it had no field staff.

Recently Trump administration began to shift many of the ERS positions and a few others to Kansas City, a decision that has been highly unpopular in ERS – Politico says it led to “mass attrition.”

A key aspect of the move is whether or not it will interfere with important agency functions. Now Politico says the agency is warning USDA officials that the move could lead to “significant delays in vital research reports.”

Politico says the internal USDA memo was drafted for planning purposes and identifies some 38 specific reports that may be delayed “because staff members have departed,” and which include research on topics such as consolidation in the dairy industry, food security among veterans, international agricultural market access and others. Some reports may even be discontinued, such as those that calculate “price spreads,” the share of food dollars that goes to farmers.

Asked to comment on the internal document, a USDA spokesperson told Politico that "ERS has taken important action to ensure mission continuity and delivery of mission critical work throughout the transition and as a result, the agency is on track to complete its congressionally mandated projects.

Separately, the union for the agency’s employees estimates that only 19 out of 280 employees have chosen to move, just 7 percent of total staff. USDA has a deadline of Sept. 30 for current employees to change their status and those "numbers are changing daily," Politico said.

Since the move was announced in August of last year, 88 employees left the agency and 50 staffers chose to retire, according to the union. Forty-four employees were granted special accommodations allowing them to temporarily keep working in Washington, such as via telework or an extension to their report date in the new office space. A reported 79 employees will stay in DC to carry out operations deemed "core" by USDA, Politico said.

USDA says it is actively recruiting for more than 100 positions for the agencies affected by the move.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has defended the move as a means to cut costs, improve recruitment and retention of staff and bring USDA closer to farming communities. USDA claims that the relocation would save about $20 million per year over 15 years. But several employees and former officials dispute that estimate and suggest the department ordered the relocation to stifle research that contradicts the administration's agenda.

Congress is set to confront the issue during conferences of the fiscal 2020 spending bills. The House bill blocks the department from carrying out the move while the Senate measure provides $25 million in relocation funds.

An investigation by USDA's inspector general released this summer suggested that the department may have broken the law by not obtaining congressional approval before relocating two research agencies out of Washington, Politico says.

Many commodity and trade-related outlook products are expected to be released on time, the internal memo states. But most outlook reports “will be shortened if key staff depart before new hires are trained and if secure IT connections preclude remote participation” in the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report, an important forecast of market conditions for major crops and livestock.

A current ERS employee, granted anonymity out of fear of retribution, told POLITICO that cellphone service and Wi-Fi access was cut off several weeks ago. Photos have been removed from office walls and personal trash cans were taken as well, the staffer said.

So, this political fight continues and likely will intensify. The Economic Research Service is a highly regarded operation, responsible for important studies and analyses. At the same time, USDA notes that many offices of other agencies such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management – among many others – have highly decentralized operations. However, producers should watch closely to insure that the Department does not, in fact, cut back on important services as opponents of the ERS location shift change is happening, Washington Insider believes.

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