Agriculture Department headquarters in Washington.

Agriculture Department headquarters in Washington. USDA photo

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USDA Office Relocations Are Illegal, IG Says

Agriculture Department counters that the spending law it allegedly violated is unconstitutional and therefore not binding.

The Agriculture Department is in violation of spending laws by relocating employees out of the Washington, D.C., area, according to a new watchdog report. 

USDA is in the process of moving the employees at two of its components—the Economic Research Service and the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture—to Kansas City. The USDA inspector general found those moves violate a 2018 appropriations law, which included language preventing the department from implementing any reorganization efforts without prior approval from appropriations committees in Congress. The law specifically prohibited spending money on any effort that “relocates an office or employees.” 

The same language was included in a fiscal 2019 spending law and a House-passed Agriculture appropriations bill for fiscal 2020. 

The auditors instructed USDA to “take appropriate action” for any violations of the Antideficiency Act, the law that prohibits federal agencies from spending funds that have not been appropriated. In October 2018, USDA entered into a $340,000 contract for reviewing potential destinations for the new headquarters locations.

The IG recommended USDA go back to Congress and to get approval for the moves before spending any additional money on them. 

The department said it would not punish anyone for Antideficiency Act violations, citing a decision from its general counsel last month that USDA had complied with applicable parts of the law and the “committee approval” requirements “are unconstitutional and are without legal effect.” In the general counsel review, USDA said the Supreme Court, the Government Accountability Office and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel have all previously agreed with that assessment. 

"The department's actions comply fully with all applicable laws," USDA General Counsel Stephen Vaden said in response to the report. "OIG's suggestion otherwise ignores these precedents dating back nearly 40 years.” 

The IG noted, however, that USDA itself has interpreted the appropriations language differently when it was included in previous spending bills. 

“Such provisions have been included in relevant appropriations acts since 2015, and the department has previously taken the position that provisions...are binding upon the department,” the IG said. 

The auditors instructed USDA to communicate the department's new interpretation to its components to ensure consistency. The IG also said the department’s internal guidance requires certain steps before relocating employees, such as a cost-benefit analysis, but USDA said those provisions are waived if the relocation is initiated by the secretary. 

While the IG accepted this reasoning, it said USDA would be better served by additional analysis. 

“We believe that adopting the approach outlined within the regulation would be beneficial for all such proposed actions going forward because it is intended to provide a structured process to facilitate the implementation of organizational changes throughout the department,” the IG said. 

Trump administration officials have generally said moving Agriculture Department offices to Kansas City would get federal employees closer to the constituents they serve and save taxpayer dollars. During a Republican party event in his home state of South Carolina on Friday, however, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said the relocations would help the administration attain another goal: shedding federal employees.

More than half of ERS and NIFA employees have not accepted their relocation orders.