USDA Narrows Relocation Sites for Office Moves

The controversial plan to relocate the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture would cost $25 million.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Tuesday announced a shortened list of sites under consideration for his disputed plan to move research divisions out of Washington—the day after the Trump White House released a fiscal 2020 budget that would cut both operations.

Having received 136 “expressions of interest” from localities, nonprofits and companies to be the new home of the department’s Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the list of bidders still in the running is down to 67 sites in 28 states, according to the list. They include many Midwest and southern states, as well as the Washington suburban locations of the University of Maryland (College Park) and the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp.

“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.”

After criticism from agricultural research groups and lawmakers advising the department to postpone the moves, the department cited the following “guiding principles” for weighing the bids: USDA travel requirements, labor force statistics, and work hours most compatible with USDA office schedules.

Staffers at both the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture last week were notified of whose jobs will be moving out of Washington.

On Monday, the larger budget release contained language proposing cuts in both the offices, as well as $15.5 million for relocation costs for ERS and $9.5 million for NIFA relocation.

The American Statistical Association, which has been leading the charge among critics of the proposed moves, put out statements opposing both the budget and the transfers. “USDA’s proposal to cut the Economic Research Service programs budget in half speaks volumes,” said Executive Director Ron Wasserstein. “USDA does not value the statistics, research, and analysis that ERS provides to support our food, agriculture, and rural economies. It’s as if they are saying, ‘Who needs evidence-based policymaking? We are experts so just trust us,’” he added. “We trust Congress will maintain the ERS budget, and keep ERS and NIFA in the National Capital Region” as well as block Perdue’s related plan to move the research office into the Office of the Chief Economist, reporting to the secretary.