Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement: "In our administration, we have looked critically at the way we do business, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the best service possible for our customers, and for the taxpayers."

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement: "In our administration, we have looked critically at the way we do business, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the best service possible for our customers, and for the taxpayers." Cliff Owen/AP

Democrats Ramp Up Attacks on Agriculture’s Planned Office Relocations

With a site announcement imminent, lawmakers demand documents and move to block plan.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has 700 employees and much of the farm community on tenterhooks awaiting his announcement of which of three finalist locations will be the new site of USDA’s Economic Research Service and its National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

The moves, first announced last August and defended as efficiencies that will bring department researchers closer to stakeholders and save them money on the cost of living, have drawn opposition from Democrats on Capitol Hill, academic groups and many employees, who recently voted to unionize. They see the moves as disruptive to the research community’s desire for collaboration with other entities in Washington, D.C.

The partisan divide on Perdue’s plan was dramatized during a Wednesday hearing of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research. It followed the House Appropriations panel’s approval on May 22 of language blocking the planned relocation, resisting “USDA’s proposal to put ERS, currently under USDA’s research mission area, under the Office of the Chief Economist, which is under the Office of the Secretary,” and also rejecting the Trump administration’s proposal to cut 50 percent of ERS’s research budget.

In addition on Wednesday, three Democratic senators wrote to the Agriculture secretary and Emily Murphy, chief of the General Services Administration, asking for documents and details on the building leasing calculations and for the cost-benefit analysis done to justify the planned movies.

“Secretary Perdue’s claim that the research agencies are better served elsewhere is misconstrued,” said subcommittee Chairwoman Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., in her opening statement on Wednesday. “Any reforms to USDA’s research agencies must have clear benefits to ag research and be conducted in a transparent manner. Not only were stakeholders entirely cut out of this process, they were blindsided by the announcement from USDA last August. And to date, the actual benefits to ag research or an economic analysis of this proposal have not been conveyed.”

Plaskett also warned that current ERS and NIFA staff are losing the knowledge provided by departing colleagues and are still recovering from the 35-day partial government shutdown.

Her three supportive witnesses—two professional research administrators and a farmer—agreed. NIFA “should be right here, not 600 or 1,000 miles away,” said Jack Payne, senior vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Florida, speaking on his own behalf.

Changing localities would “move the staff away from their primary partners—federal agencies, leading science groups, policymakers and experts,” he said, stressing the importance of “interdisciplinary” research that requires his colleagues to collaborate and meet with funders at the Defense and Interior departments, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Forest Service, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Food and Drug Administration. “NIFA is often the convenor” of those meetings, Payne added. “ERS and NIFA have never worked with the farmers and ranchers—we work with them.”

William Tracy a professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said, “Washington, D.C., is one of the easiest places to get to—easier than West Lafayette, Ind.”  (The three finalists as sites are the area around Purdue University in Indiana, the dual-state area around Kansas City and the Research Triangle in North Carolina.)  “Keeping [the offices] here would actually reduce the perception of bias,” Tracy added, citing the potential for jealousy from localities that lose out when competing areas win federal grants.

Elizabeth Brownlee, owner and operator of the Nightfall Farm in Crothersville, Ind., said the relocations would “have a negative impact on farmers and ranchers by making it make it more challenging for the farm community to collaborate with those agencies, and jeopardize [Congress’s] ability to craft evidence-based policy.”

Citing floods, soil erosion and delayed grazing time for livestock that lends urgency to research on handling climate change, Brownlee said, “I don’t need ERS and NIFA in my county, I need them working hard in Washington, D.C.”

Subcommittee ranking member Neal Dunn, R-Fla., said he was “bewildered” with the Democrats’ “obsession” with obstructing Perdue’s planned moves, which he attributed to political expediency and anti-Trump bias. “Secretary Perdue has enacted a culture of customer service and efficiency at USDA,” Dunn said in a statement. “Many USDA offices and programs reside in cities and towns across the country, and successfully provide customer service to our stakeholders.”

His colleague Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, who has joined Dunn and two dozen Republicans in a letter supporting the relocations, added, “The elitist notion that all wisdom and knowledge stems from Washington, D.C., is offensive to me and should be offensive to anyone who resides in rural America. Secretary Perdue gets that.”

Rep. David Rouzer, R- N.C., delivered a direct plug for moving the offices to his home state, calling it “the perfect place,” a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Washington and 20 minutes from the Raleigh-Durham airport.

The Republicans also cited letters supporting the moves they’ve received from their home-state land-grant universities. That, however, is not the position taken by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, whose president Peter McPherson on May 3 sent Perdue a letter arguing, “We have been concerned about the very real potential for the significant loss of dedicated staff and institutional memory if a relocation were to move forward. There are challenges for individual employees in a relocation and we hope that those problems would be minimized. However, the big and long-term question for APLU has always been whether or how that relocation can be done while maintaining NIFA’s effectiveness and work for science across the federal science agencies.”

Asked by Government Executive on Wednesday for comment and an update on the coming announcement, an Agriculture Department spokesman stressed in an email that function areas of both agencies will remain in the National Capital Region to perform D.C.-centric activities. 

“In our administration, we have looked critically at the way we do business, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the best service possible for our customers, and for the taxpayers of the United States,” said a statement from Perdue. “None of this reflects on the jobs being done by our ERS or NIFA employees, and in fact, I frequently tell my Cabinet colleagues that USDA has the best workforce in the federal government,” he added.

Besides saving money for taxpayers and giving staff opportunities to work in a less-expensive area, the plan is also “increasing the probability of attracting highly-qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities,” Perdue said.

Soon after Wednesday’s House hearing, Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del.; Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; and Gary Peters, D-Mich., released their letter to Perdue and the GSA administrator questioning the moves on logistical grounds.

“We are concerned that the administration’s plans to relocate these agencies will hamper the ability of the agencies to achieve their important research missions, add unnecessary expenses, increase staff turnover, and hinder the recruitment and retention of staff at NIFA and ERS,” wrote the senators, who serve on the Homeland Security and Agriculture panels. “For many years, our committees have strengthened agricultural research and worked to pass legislation right-sizing the federal real property inventory, improving management of agency real property portfolios, and cutting down on unnecessary real estate expenses.”

Hence, they asked the agency heads to supply, by June 19, a cost-benefit analysis, a list of USDA leases associated with the proposal, an estimate of the impact on staff expertise, and more information on costs—both incurred and anticipated. In addition, the Democrats asked questions, among them: “Who paid for USDA officials and the independent contractor officials to make visits to the locations of the finalists? Did any USDA officials or independent contractors have any expenses paid for by entities submitting proposals or receive any gifts from anyone associated with the expressions of interest submitted?”

The senators asked what USDA is going to do to ensure that its plan to move ERS into the Office of the Secretary will not compromise its mission of remaining a nonpolitical, objective statistical agency.

Finally, they asked Purdue for information on the severance costs for departing employees under the Office of Personnel Management’s approved Voluntary Early Retirement Authority and Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments.