Roberts, Stabenow question econ reorganization, ERS, NIFA moves

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-KS, and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, wrote a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue Sept. 7 raising concerns about the Trump administration’s plans to place the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s economics functions under the Office of the Secretary and to move most of the employees of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of Washington.

At the same time, USDA announced an extension of the deadline for communities to express an interest in housing the agencies until Oct. 15.

In their letter, Roberts and Stabenow wrote how one of the concerns raised by stakeholders is that a large number of employees will be unable to relocate, causing a sharp loss of knowledgeable staff. “Additionally, stakeholders are concerned that relocating experts outside of the National Capitol Region will erode critical partnerships with other federal agencies who are engaged in interdisciplinary research important for preventing of infectious disease, improving bioenergy efficiency, and dealing with emerging threats like Zika and Ebola,” the senators’ letter said.

Roberts and Stabenow asked a series of 12 questions in their letter, particularly a three-part question on how USDA is prepared to address any attrition from the relocation.

What plans does USDA have to manage its workforce to mitigate and remedy any loss in skills that would result from this proposal?

Following the relocation, what percent of NIFA’s and ERS’s current workforce would USDA rehire?

How long does USDA anticipate it will take it to hire new personnel to address the resulting attrition?

They also asked the agency to provide current hiring plans for NIFA and ERS.

Roberts and Stabenow also asked why USDA is not seeking public comment on the proposed reorganization and moves, how will USDA protect against conflict of interest concerns resulting from being located near a agricultural education institution and how will USDA protect the scientific integrity and independence of ERS.

Also Sept. 7, several different groups issued letters and releases expressing similar concerns about the plan.

The American Statistical Association issued a release on the plan, saying it “will drive a brain drain from a vital research component in the nation’s $1 trillion food, agriculture, and rural economy.”

Association President Lisa LaVange said in a statement, “On the face of it, the USDA move looks like common sense. The cost of living in Washington is high, and there are savings to be made by moving these agencies to places where the cost of living is lower. It’s also good to spread federal government agencies across the U.S. and not have them all based in the capital.”

But, LaVange said, there is a practical consequence to this relocation. Many of these employees are not going to readily move their homes and families. And their expertise is not something that can be replaced easily.

“It’s taken years to build this agency into a world-class center of research filled with world-class experts,” LaVange said. “They can and will take jobs that allow them to stay in their homes and keep their kids in the same schools; they most likely will resign or take early retirement rather than move.”

A brain drain from ERS will hit small farmers the hardest, said Susan Offutt, ERS administrator under President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush. “The ERS informs and helps facilitate competitive markets for agricultural products. Its free and publicly available reports help level the playing field for the 1.9 million small farmers who don’t have the budget to afford the data and analytics provided by the private sector.”

And what’s bad for small farmers is bad for consumers, the ASA letter said.

“American consumers don’t realize how much ERS research benefits them,” said Scott Swinton, past president of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. “The ERS is an indispensable source of objective, national data and analysis for farmers, for industry, for policymakers. If we want to grow our agriculture, improve nutrition, conserve water efficiently—ERS research is key.”

A research stakeholder group of about 40 members also sent a letter to the four leaders of the congressional agriculture committees and to the four leaders of the agriculture appropriations subcommittees seeking answers to questions concerning the move.

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The stakeholders included the American Society of Agronomy, the American Society for Animal Science, American Society of Plant Biologists, and the association of Non-land-grant Agriculture and Renewable Resources Universities. Also on the list were the names of agricultural colleges including Ohio State University, Michigan State University, South Dakota State University, New Mexico State University and the University of California-Davis.

Some of the questions and concerns raised within the research community, included:

How will any proposed relocation affect NIFA’s relationship with its stakeholders and the scientific community?

How will any proposed relocation affect NIFA’s relationship with other federal research agencies and policymakers?

How will any proposed relocation impact NIFA’s staff recruitment and retention, as well as the core functions of the agency?

How will any proposed relocation affect NIFA’s budget, and ultimate cost to taxpayers, in both the short and long-term?

News reports across Washington have said there are rumors within USDA the Trump administration wants to move ERS because officials do not like what ERS has been publishing about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which the administration wants to cut, and about the impact of President Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, which have resulted in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. farm products and reduced U.S. exports.

ERS has been under the undersecretary for research, education and economics, but Perdue plans to put the Office of the Chief Economist under the Office of the Secretary and ERS under the chief economist.

In a recent edition of The Hagstrom Report, it was said that at a goodbye reception for ERS Administrator Mary Bohman, who has been moved to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a former USDA research official said, “Staff were just scared to death and they wanted to stay in D.C.”

The former official also said that NIFA faced high office rental costs because it is located near The Wharf district in southwest Washington, which is in the process of development.

“Someone put in their ear to move (ERS and NIFA) out of town,” but the agencies could be located near the USDA research facilities in Beltsville, Maryland, the former official said.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].