October 12, 2018
It’s been over 60 days since the Administration shocked the research community with a proposal to relocate the headquarters of two major federal research agencies. Under the Administration’s plan, both the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) would lose their historic homes in the nation’s capital and be relocated in yet undetermined locations as soon as next year. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) along with many others in the food, farm, and research communities, are opposing the relocation and the lack of transparency in the decision-making process.
NIFA is responsible for administering several grant programs important to the sustainable agriculture community, including: the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP); Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI); Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives (FINI); and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. ERS provides critical economic policy analysis on everything from beginning farmers to local food to trade and climate change.
The relocations were broadly opposed both because physically moving DC would risk isolating NIFA and ERS from their peers and other experts concentrated in the area, and also because of the proposed administrative relocation of ERS. Moving ERS from its current place under the Research Mission Area of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to the Office of the Secretary would compromise and politicize the very federal agency responsible for impartial food and agricultural economic analysis.
NSAC was one of the early outspoken critics of the Administration’s plan, and over the last several weeks increasingly more organizations and expert advocates have added their voices to the opposition. The fears of stakeholder communities, which include the potential politicization of federal economic and policy analysis, severing partnerships and collaborations with other federal research agencies and key stakeholders, and hampering of Congressional oversight and accountability, have yet to be directly addressed by the Administration.
Last month, NSAC joined with over 100 organizations, universities and other research stakeholders on a letter formally asking Congress to delay the proposed relocation until their questions and concerns could be fully addressed. This followed on the heels of a similar letter sent directly to USDA, requesting additional information and the opportunity for the public to provide input about the relocation. To date, USDA has denied all requests for a formal public comment period and has provided stakeholders very little information about the relocation plan. They have also yet to respond to if and how they intend to address the concerns raised by stakeholders and policymakers.
This week the opposition increased further, with 45 farm and scientific organizations sending another letter to congressional appropriators. This outreach urged appropriators to demand that USDA take no action on the proposed relocation and reorganization until they could determine whether or not to approve the proposal (i.e., provide funding for it). The letter reads in part:
“With USDA funded through December 7 on a continuing resolution, we write to respectfully request you exercise your authorities to convey to USDA that it not take any action to implement any part of the relocations and realignment prior to your action on a final bill. There are many questions in the USDA community about the justification, rapid timeline, and the ramifications of the moves. We believe the justifications and ramifications should be thoroughly examined and understood before USDA moves forward with either the reorganization or the relocations.”
USDA is currently operating under a temporary budget until December 7.
NSAC was pleased to join this letter along with many of our allies in the food, agriculture, and research communities. Signatories included but are not limited to: National Farmers Union, National Young Farmers Coalition, National Organic Coalition, Union of Concerned Scientists, Food Research and Action Center, the National WIC Association, the National Resource Defense Council, the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, and the American Statistical Association.
In addition to these efforts, two NSAC members – the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Organic Farming Research Foundation – recently coordinated a national petition to Congress. The petition, which asked Congress to formally oppose the move of ERS and NIFA, collected signatures from over 1,100 researchers across the country. Additional details on the petition can be found here.
Adding fuel to the fire this week, 56 former USDA and other federal agency officials – who served under both Democrat and Republican administrations – also reached out to congressional leaders. The officials specifically highlighted their opposition to the Administration’s plan to move ERS out of USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Mission Area and under the Office of the Chief Economist. The primary concerns outlined in the letter included: loss of staff expertise, valuable collaborations, and visibility with policymakers, as well as the potential to risk the independence and credibility of federal economic and policy research.
Several prominent former agricultural agency leaders who signed the letter also discussed their concerns on a recent webinar, which drew the attention of nearly 500 stakeholders. USDA Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky also joined the webinar, but did little to reassure listeners that USDA has a plan in place that will address the many concerns raised to date.
The public response to the Administration’s decision has also stirred interest from the Hill. To date, over a dozen Members of Congress have formally weighed in with USDA in order to express their concerns. These members are requesting that answers to the many questions raised be addressed before any further actions are taken on the relocations. Members have also requested oversight hearings and penned op-eds to draw public attention to an issue that has crept below the radar of most of the public.
At the time of this post, congressional inquiries have been sent directly to USDA by a dozen Members of Congress, including by members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee , the Senate Agriculture Committee, and the Maryland and Virginia Senate delegation.
Additionally, Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), the House Delegate for the District of Columbia, and Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Minority Whip, have formally requested an investigation by the Inspector General. Holmes Norton and Hoyer have also requested an oversight hearing to examine the legality and process used to develop the proposal, including whether a cost-benefit analysis was conducted.
Even to obvious questions, USDA has so far refused to provide any direct information or substantial answers. For example, when asked by the leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee whether stakeholders have expressed concern over the move, Secretary Perdue simply responded that USDA believes the realignment would improve stakeholder engagement. In order to support this assertion, the Secretary cited a now 20-year-old study.
Many policymakers (and taxpayers) have serious concerns about the true cost benefit analysis of moving ERS and NIFA. Will the suggested benefits outweigh the immense cost to taxpayers to move the agencies? How will those costs and benefits change over time? Even though the Administration has had over two months to answer these (and other) basic questions, they have remained silent. USDA has yet to provide a cost-benefit analysis, a detailed budget plan for the proposed move, or even a legitimate response to the dozens of stakeholder letters and formal inquiries from appropriators and authorizers.
With two months already passed since the initial proposal was made by USDA, the clock is ticking for Congress to act. USDA is currently soliciting “Expressions of Interest” from any parties who wish to put in a bid to become the next host for these two federal agencies, which are due October 15. This means Congress will need to move quickly if they hope to stop, or even delay, this ill-advised relocation. USDA plans to announce the new location(s) in January 2019, and open the offices next summer.
Given this short timeline, there are two possible legislative mechanisms through which Congress can act. The first, and most obvious, is through the annual appropriations process. The second option would be taking action through the next farm bill, which is actively being debated. Given the support for this proposal from the Chair of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, it has proven difficult to convince appropriators to formally weigh in. However, with a final agriculture appropriations bill for FY 2019 not yet finalized, pressure will be mounting on appropriators to act.
Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committee also have the ability to intervene through the next farm bill, which remains in limbo. The Senate Farm Bill already addresses another widely opposed USDA reorganization by reversing the Administration’s elimination of the Rural Development Mission Area and its elimination of the Under Secretary for Rural Development. It might be difficult, but is not impossible, for Congress to also reverse this latest reorganization attempt.
Absent congressional action, USDA is likely to proceed with their plans. The Deputy Secretary has assured stakeholders that all options are on the table, including relocating the agencies to existing government-owned space within the National Capital Region.
With so much on the line for the future of food and agriculture in this country, NSAC will continue to urge Congress to provide the proper oversight to ensure that the integrity of America’s economic and agricultural research is upheld.