Amidst ongoing budget negotiations to prevent another government shutdown, Members of Congress followed through with their commitment to continue to stand up against the proposed move of two premier research institutions from the Capital region. This week, Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Sanford Bishop (D-GA), and 12 other members of Congress reintroduced the Agriculture Research Integrity Act of 2019 (ARIA), H.R.1221, with the aim of laying the legislative groundwork to oppose the relocation.
The proposal to relocate and reorganize the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) was proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last summer, but critics say this decision is being carried out without any policy or cost analysis or economic justification. Along with citing concerns for USDA’s decision, the bill reaffirms the primary locations of ERS and NIFA within Washington–Baltimore–Arlington combined statistical area. The bill also stipulates that the authority to administer the agencies lies with the Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE) and that it may not be vested in another mission area or office within USDA.
In addition to the bill’s lead sponsors, ARIA is cosponsored by fellow agriculture appropriators Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Barabara Lee (D-CA) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX); House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD); as well as Representatives Elanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC), Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Ann Kuster (D-NH), Jim McGovern (D-MA), and Salud Carbajal (D-CA).
Mounting Opposition from the Hill
A growing number of Congressional lawmakers have raised similar concerns. Just this week, after months of ongoing negotiations to end the partial government shutdown, both House and Senate appropriators agreed on language restricting the move as included in the final conference report released for the fiscal year (FY) 2019 agriculture appropriations bill. The report specifically expressed concern around USDA’s plan to relocate and reorganize ERS and NIFA and directed USDA to “delay indefinitely” the proposal to reorganize ERS under the Office of the Chief Economist as well as provide a “detailed analysis” and cost estimates of the proposed move of both agencies. The final FY19 agriculture appropriations bill is slated to be approved by the House and Senate, and hopefully signed into law, this week.
NSAC applauds House and Senate leaders for acknowledging the real and justified concerns raised by NSAC and other stakeholders in the agricultural community, and for addressing the issue as one of their first actions of the year. We encourage the House and Senate to move forward quickly in adopting this language and approve a final funding bill for FY2019.
Mounting Opposition from the Scientific Community
To date, 136 expressions of interest from 35 states have been submitted by various institutions interested in becoming the new home of the agencies. USDA has contracted with a private firm, Ernst and Young, to assist in reviewing the applications. Since the initial announcement of the proposed move, USDA has since released specific selection criteria they will consider in choosing a new location. These criteria include quality of life, housing costs, access to healthcare, and safety, among others.
Despite the perhaps obligatory interest from states to compete to host the two agencies, there has been widespread concern about the move, not only from the hill, but also from the agency’s primary stakeholders. Leaders within the scientific community have made it known that moving and reorganizing ERS and NIFA will have detrimental impacts on the broader research community, as well as funding and support for agricultural research at large. Of prime concern is the loss of expert staff that will likely be unable to uproot their lives to make the move. Such a loss would drastically impact the quality of expertise at the agencies and key relationships with stakeholders in the DC area. Additional concerns include the further isolation of agriculture research and the impact on partnerships with other federal agencies located in DC and annual appropriations, as well as increased political influence into federally-chartered economic policy research analysis.
To date, over fifty scientists and administrators of Land-Grant Universities, including former Research Undersecretaries of the USDA, have outlined the likely negative outcomes of moving and / or reorganizing the two nonpartisan research agencies. In a letter addressed to Congress, they propose that moving the agencies out of the DC Capital region will undermine food and agriculture enterprise by disrupting and hampering the agencies’ vital economic and scientific work, as well as erode efforts to increase research funding which has stagnated for the last couple decades. Letters from over 100 farm and scientific organizations have also been submitted to USDA and members of Congress expressing similar concerns.
Catherine Woteki, former USDA Chief Scientist and Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education & Economics (REE) and Gale Buchanan, former USDA Chief Scientist and Under Secretary of Agriculture for REE have been two outspoken critics of the move. They have broadly shared their primary concerns that USDA’s attempts to dismantle its research arm in such a major way, and in such a short time, without consultation with current or former REE, NIFA, and ERS leaders (or input from the greater research community and other good-government procedures) – will result in chaos and upheaval within the Department.
Outlook on the Relocation?
Despite the widespread concern from both stakeholders and the hill, the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, has so far remained intent on dismantling the agencies and proceeding with the relocation. With little to no information from the Department and no cost-benefit analysis justifying the move, critics are still baffled as to why USDA is undertaking this move. To date, USDA has denied all requests for a formal public comment period and has provided stakeholders very little information about the relocation plan. An Inspector General report has been initiated to review the proposal and is expected within the coming weeks.
Current government funding expires February 15, and although not guaranteed, it is increasingly likely that that lawmakers will be able to put a new bill on the President’s desk this week. If the new 2019 spending bill—which hinges around border security—that was released this week is passed and signed into law, USDA will face a stronger impediment to moving forward with the move. Although not a mandate, requests for a deeper cost analysis of the move can be an important step in providing information and more transparency to the process, and potentially create an opportunity for stronger action in the FY2020 appropriations process.