Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue late last week responded to lawmakers and outside critics of his proposal to move two Washington-based offices elsewhere in the country to place them closer to farming community stakeholders.
In a Sept. 20 letter responding to queries from Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., leaders of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry panel, Perdue justified the planned move affecting some 700 employees as a way to save on payroll and facilities costs while easing recruitment of job candidates who live nearer to land-grant universities.
The controversial proposal announced in August, with a site solicitation period extended this month, would move by next summer the department’s Economic Research Service and its National Institute of Food and Agriculture, while also restoring the economic analysis unit to its previous slot inside the secretary’s Office of the Chief Economist. Critics said they feared the plan’s true purpose was to reduce the policy influence of the research units and encourage experienced statisticians to leave government.
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“We are confident that ERS will remain a trusted and objective source of information for the food and agricultural sector and provide policy relevant analyses with better coordination within OCE,” Perdue wrote in the letter obtained by the Hagstrom Report. “NIFA will continue to fund leading-edge research as USDA's extramural research arm, and we believe will ultimately grow even stronger partnerships with universities and the extension community by being primarily located outside of the National Capital Region.”
Perdue asserted that his department has the authority to make the moves, stressing the importance of placing these “important USDA resources closer to stakeholders who live and work outside the D.C. area” while also allowing “more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets.” Citing higher-than-average attrition rates at the two units, he said employees at the unnamed new locations would enjoy “more affordable housing [that] will allow employees to live closer to their workplace, lower commute times, and [improved] quality of life.”
All of the existing departmental and White House directives on scientific integrity “will continue to be a priority,” he said. “As we consider new locations, all necessary steps will take place to maintain ERS' status as a Federal Statistical Agency. …Additionally, ERS will continue to be led by a career Senior Executive Service employee who will report to a career SES employee rather than the politically appointed Undersecretary” of Research, Education and Economics.
As for the institute’s potential for conflicts of interest, Perdue said, employees will continue using guidance from the Office of the General Counsel. Acknowledging that staff from both the economics unit and the institute interact with Washington officials from other agencies, Perdue said, “We are committed to retaining the necessary staff from each agency in the D.C. area to continue to fulfill these important roles.”
Newsletter editor Jerry Hagstrom noted that Perdue may have been appealing to the senators’ home-state loyalties when the secretary mentioned that he enjoyed his recent visits to Kansas State and Michigan State universities.
Opposition, however, continued from more than 100 groups. The American Statistical Association on Monday posted audio of a webinar it held last week examining the proposal that attracted 300 participants and included a sign-on letter for organizations that want to weigh in opposing the moves.
“The USDA seemingly made this decision without consulting Congress or the USDA’s partners and stakeholders,” president Lisa LaVange said earlier. “And now it’s trying to rush through the move. America—not least America’s producers and rural community—need to understand what is going on, why and what impact this will have on America’s food, agriculture and the rural economy.”
The association’s executive director, Ron Wasserstein, faulted Perdue for not providing evidence that the move would solve recruitment challenges. “The USDA also claimed that the ERS should be closer to farmers, even though the primary audience for its research is other USDA program agencies and congressional and administration policy officials,” he said.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, from suburban Maryland, also expressed opposition, writing Perdue on Sept. 4 saying, “Many of the employees at this agency have worked at USDA in the Washington region for years, if not decades. They have put down roots here: they own property here, they have children enrolled in the local schools, and they have spouses with jobs in the area. Forcing them to leave Washington to continue doing the jobs they excel at does them, and their families, an extreme disservice. The likely result is that many will choose to leave the department, contributing to a serious brain drain that will degrade the quality of work at these agencies.”