Ag Policy Blog

USDA Narrows ERS/NIFA Relocation List, But Critics Still Opposed

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent

Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Tuesday announced that the list of cities to which the Trump administration wants to relocate most of the employees in the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food Agriculture has been narrowed from 136 to 67.

The announcement reflected Perdue's determination to move staff from the two agencies out of Washington, D.C., despite criticisms from former agency leaders and at least some members of Congress.

“The announcement of this middle list shows that we are committed to the important missions of these agencies and transparency in our selection process. USDA will make the best choice for our employees and customers,” Perdue said.

“Relocation will help ensure that USDA is the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and move our resources closer to our customers.”

The American Statistical Association that represents stakeholders, including current ERS and NIFA employees, said the announcement is still “disappointing” because neither employees nor former agency heads have been consulted.

“The announcement of this middle list shows that we are committed to the important missions of these agencies and transparency in our selection process. USDA will make the best choice for our employees and customers,” Perdue said.

“Relocation will help ensure that USDA is the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and move our resources closer to our customers.”

In making up the list, USDA considered travel requirements, labor force statistics and work hours most compatible with all USDA office schedules, the secretary said.

Ron Wasserstein, executive director of American Statistical Association, said, “We’re disappointed to see USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue persisting in his plans to uproot the USDA research arm, despite the overwhelming concerns of its former leaders and the greater statistical and agricultural research community.“

“The USDA leadership developed their plans without consulting any of the agency’s current or former research and statistical heads or the broader research community,” Wasserstein said. “With that community now having strongly voiced its concerns and opposition, USDA seems intent to proceed without course corrections.”

“We thank Congress for expressing its concerns and seeking clarity from USDA for both the rationale and the costs and impacts of the ERS/NIFA move,” said Karen Kafadar, ASA's 2019 president.

“Regrettably, USDA’s announcement today dismisses the input from ERS/NIFA's customers and stakeholders, primarily policy- and decision-makers,” Kafadar said.

“We continue to believe that this move is not only costly to U.S. taxpayers but removes ERS from its critical mission, ‘to conduct high-quality, objective economic research to inform and enhance public and private decision-making.’

“We strongly urge Congress to halt USDA’s plans to move ERS/NIFA to protect the research and statistical foundations of our food, agricultural and rural economies,” Kafadar said.

“There is good news in today’s announcement: The many critics in the non-listed communities can now speak more freely,” added Wasserstein.

Others in the community also reacted to the announcement.

Gale Buchanan, USDA chief scientist and undersecretary in the George W. Bush administration, pointed out, “USDA has yet to address two basic questions: What are the problems they are proposing to fix?

How will the proposal make the agricultural research system better?”

“I’m confident the reason these questions go unanswered is the moves don’t fix a problem and the system won’t be improved,” Buchanan said. “USDA’s announcement is another step in the wrong direction.”

Catherine Woteki, USDA chief scientist and undersecretary in the Barack Obama administration, added her concern in light of the precipitous drops of ERS and NIFA in the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.

“The rankings drop and the reports of high attrition rates trickling out in recent months are very troubling,” Woteki said.

“They are, however, only a fraction of the eventual rankings drop and brain drain expected by an actual move to one of the middle-list locations. It’s time for the USDA to listen to its employees and the outside expert and stakeholder community to withdraw their ill-advised plans.”

“The foundation of sound government decision-making is good information,” said Susan Offutt, administrator of ERS under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

“By not consulting all the members of the community who value ERS and by not examining the costs and benefits of the plan for relocation and realignment in a systematic analysis, the department shreds its credibility by insisting it has made the right decision without considering all the evidence,” Offutt said.

The mini-bus of the appropriations bill that funds the Agriculture Department through September 30 contained report language urging USDA not to move quickly and to provide Congress with reports on its plans.

Separately, House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., told reporters Tuesday that it would be unwise for the Trump administration to proceed with its plans to move the Economic Research Service under the Office of the Chief Economist and move most of the employees of ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture without further consultation with Congress.

After a hearing at which USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong said that her office would soon complete a report on the administration’s plans, Bishop told reporters that “it may not be advisable” for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to proceed with the move without further “dialogue” with Congress.

The fiscal year 2020 Agriculture appropriations bill contains report language urging USDA to justify the move and explain the economics behind it. Report language does not have the force of law, but congressional appropriators have ways of punishing the executive branch when officials defy them.

Fong said her office has “just about finished field work” on the report requested by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

Fong said that the scope of the work is to look at USDA’s legal authority to do a reorganization, to look at its budget authority, and to determine whether the department followed proper procedures it has governing relocations.

Fong said her staff would also talk with the “stakeholders” involved with the two USDA divisions.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, asked Fong if the report would cover the question of whether USDA is undertaking the move because Trump administration officials do not like the results of some of the research coming out of the agencies in question. Fong said she had been aware that this has been a concern, but that she would be interested in hearing more from Pingree about it.

The 67 locations expressing interest in hosting the USDA agencies can be found at: https://goo.gl/…

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@njdc.com

Follow him on Twitter @hagstromreport

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