Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., questions USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue during his confirmation hearing in March 2017. Van Hollen is now trying to block Perdue's plan to relocate research offices outside the D.C. area.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., questions USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue during his confirmation hearing in March 2017. Van Hollen is now trying to block Perdue's plan to relocate research offices outside the D.C. area. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP file photo

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Senators Introduce Bill to Block USDA Research Agency Moves

The measure mirrors language in the House Appropriations Committee’s fiscal 2020 funding bill for the department, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., has placed a hold on a key nominee.

A group of eight Democratic senators introduced legislation Thursday that would block the Agriculture Department’s plans to move two research agencies out of the Washington, D.C., area, and one lawmaker has put a hold on a key nomination to the department.

The Agriculture Research Integrity Act would require that the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service be located within “the National Capital Region” in order to “ensure maximum coordination and interaction” with one another and with other science agencies across the federal government. The bill comes one day after the House Appropriations Committee proposed, in its draft fiscal 2020 Agriculture Department funding bill, prohibiting any federal dollars from going toward moving the agencies out of the D.C. area.

The Senate legislation was sponsored by Democratic Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin of Maryland; Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia; Patrick Leahy, Vt.; Jeff Merkley, Ore.; Patty Murray, Wash.; and Sherrod Brown, Ohio. In a press release announcing the bill, the lawmakers cited an article in The Washington Post that reported that staff members have fled the agency in unusually high numbers since Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the relocation plans.

“The experts at NIFA and ERS conduct the scientific research that helps grow the food our families eat. They need a seat at the table with decision makers,” Van Hollen said. “This proposed move—coupled with other efforts to undermine their work—is part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to banish facts and science from policy decisions. We are committed to fighting it tooth and nail.”

Additionally, Government Executive has learned that in an effort to further stall the research agency relocations, Van Hollen has placed a hold on the nomination of Scott Hutchins, whom President Trump tapped to be the department’s undersecretary for research, education and economics. First nominated in July 2018, Hutchins’ appointment was not acted upon by the Senate before the session turned over in January, and he was renominated that month. The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee gave him a favorable recommendation last week.

Earlier this month, the Agriculture Department announced three localities that are finalists in the competition to attract the science agencies. American Federation of Government Employees’ Peter Winch, who organized a successful unionization drive at ERS, said employees are expecting a final decision as early as Friday.

“Employees feel that it will be announced tomorrow,” he said Thursday.

In a statement, AFGE National President J. David Cox vowed to fight any effort to move the Agriculture Department’s science agencies out of the Washington, D.C., region.

“Under the Trump administration, the USDA is suppressing the publication of scientific research that ERS employees conduct and has proposed upending employees’ lives by relocating the agency outside the nation’s capital,” Cox said. “Just like we have been standing up and fighting back against numerous other anti-worker proposals from the Trump Administration, we will join the employees at ERS and NIFA in fighting against efforts to relocate them and politicize their research.”