USDA relocation proposal for ERS, NIFA generates strong opposition

When Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue proposed moving both the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of the Washington, DC metro area and into more affordable parts of the country last month, he thought the move made a great deal of common sense.

With high-speed internet and modern technology, employees could be located almost anywhere and still be in touch with their “Beltway brethren.”

What Perdue didn’t expect was such strong pushback and criticism, including from some lawmakers who have threatened to block the move.

Perdue initially said moving the offices would improve staff recruitment and retention, save taxpayer dollars, improve efficiencies and put the organizations closer to the areas they serve. As part of the change, ERS will be aligned with the Office of the Chief Economist under the Office of the Secretary, rather than the Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue defended the proposal in an exclusive interview with Agri-Pulse.

“Frankly, all of us empirically can understand there are less expensive places to live than the national capital region, there are less expensive places to raise a family,” he said, suggesting it would be easier to recruit people to work in places other than Washington, DC.

“Many, frankly, we believe would volunteer to go somewhere else,” he said.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, criticized the plan in a Sept.18 letter to Perdue, telling him “the process to relocate these agencies has lacked meaningful public input that would better inform any final decision” and urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “be more forthcoming and transparent with the metrics it utilized in developing the current proposal.”

In addition, Johnson said, “We are concerned that the move will lead to a large loss of knowledgeable and experienced staff” and “any disruption in the execution of these agencies.’

“Relocating ERS out of the Washington Metro area would be a disaster,” wrote John Lee Jr., who served as ERS administrator from 1981-1993, in a note to fellow economists. Lee said ERS has long “focused on broad national and international issues of importance to national political and other decision-makers. Many of these are in DC and depend on ERS for objective information.” He fears that “if ERS is ‘out of sight and out of mind,’ those linkages could wither.”

Former NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy, who left USDA earlier this year to become the president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in Washington state, said he never had any problem recruiting people to work at NIFA. He routinely received hundreds of resumes, he said.

“Washington’s where the action is,” Ramaswamy said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. NIFA staff have been able to coordinate with other federal science agencies in the D.C. area and convene public discussions on issues critical to the agriculture industry, he said.

Ramaswamy also said moving NIFA near a land-grant university could raise concerns about favoritism when that university receives a research grant.

NIFA, which awards hundreds of grants totaling hundreds of millions of dollars each year, has between 350 and 400 employees and a budget of $1.525 billion, which the administration proposed to cut in fiscal year 2019 to $1.369 billion. Employees include about 100 people in grants and financial management, about 60 “national program leaders” in areas such as agronomy and soil science, and about 70 program specialists or assistants and administrative support staff. Other employees include executives, information technology workers and civil rights compliance staff.

Despite the criticism, Perdue seems determined to march ahead. The department is asking for “expressions of interest” from possible locations to be sent in by Oct. 15.

Responding to questions from Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-KS, and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, Perdue said employees should know by January where their new offices will be located. The offices would be moved by next summer.

“We hope that this timeline provides enough notice to employees to allow families to make considerations regarding spousal employment and to accommodate our employees with school-aged children,” Perdue said in a Sept. 20 letter. “It is important to limit the window of uncertainty for our employees, which is why I have instituted what some believe to be an aggressive timeline.”

“To avoid as much work disruptions as possible, we anticipate a rolling transition from D.C. to the new location,” he said in the letter, which makes clear that ERS and NIFA could end up in the same place or in separate locations.

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Time will tell if Perdue is ultimately successful in implementing his plan. The top Democrat on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Sanford Bishop, D-GA, is trying to insert a policy rider in the fiscal 2019 spending package for USDA to block the relocations. For now, Republicans are blocking the move, but that could change if the GOP loses control of the House in the mid-term elections.

Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant can be reached at Steve Davies contributed to this column.