July 24, 2019
Last week, the Senate Agriculture Committee took the latest action in the ongoing, collaborative effort to reverse the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) relocation of two core research agencies from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City, Missouri. The Committee called on Dr. Scott Hutchins, Deputy Undersecretary for USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Mission Area to report on the agency’s plans for implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill, and how relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) would affect those efforts.
The REE mission area encompasses ERS and NIFA, as well as the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Together, these four pillars of REE are responsible for providing critical research, insights, and recommendations to Congress, and to food and farm stakeholders across the country.
Less than a month after USDA announced its decision to relocate ERS and NIFA’s core services to Kansas City, employees at both agencies have been told that they must report for duty at the yet-undetermined new location to keep their jobs. The move is being carried out with little to no oversight from federal procedural rules and has been broadly opposed by Members of Congress and many key stakeholders.
During last week’s hearing, Senate Democrats led the charge opposing the move and took the agency to task on its relocation decision. In her opening remarks, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, called USDA’s relocation plans rushed, and criticized the Department’s bypassing of Congress and dismissal of their clearly stated intent to halt further negotiations on the move until more information on the costs, benefits and impacts of the relocation could be thoughtful weighed by policymakers.
In a strong show of opposition, Senator Stabenow echoed the concerns of stakeholders who suspect that the true goal of the relocation is to reduce federal investments in agricultural research (despite Congress’ resounding rejection of proposals for budget cuts). She directly referred to the uprooting of ERS and NIFA as “not a relocation but a demolition” and went on to underscore that everything possible must be done to salvage the valuable expertise that ERS and NIFA have cultivated over the years.
In Dr. Hutchins’ defense of the move, he referred to Kansas City as a vibrant urban center that was already home to many federal workers. Using talking points previously circulated by USDA, Hutchins claimed that placing ERS and NIFA in close proximity to agriculture constituents would lead to thriving research and continued growth. When pressed on whether or not valuable economic and market reports produced by ERS would meet delays as a result of the relocation, Hutchins claimed that ensuring continuity of the mission of both agencies was of utmost priority.
Despite these assurances, however, both ERS and NIFA are already seeing considerable loss of highly-qualified staff. Of the 253 positions at ERS, and 294 at NIFA to move to Kansas City, more than half of ERS employees said they will not relocate, while more than two-thirds of current NIFA staff indicated they will not be moving with the agency or did not respond prior to the initial July 15th deadline. These numbers are expected to increase as employees now have until September 30th to make their final decisions on whether or not to relocate.
With such severe attrition rates, it is unclear how ERS and NIFA can sustain vital programs that serve the nation’s researchers, producers, and policymakers without critical staff. Dr. Hutchins admitted that for some programs, like those doing organic economic policy analysis or research, he had no data on attrition, making the continuity of these programs even more uncertain. Already, the move threatens to jeopardize at least $80 million in grant funding for essential programs if review and subsequent disbursement of awards are delayed as a result of staff losses.
USDA insists that it has an aggressive hiring plan in place to fill lost positions, however, a recent report by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) notes that replacing such highly qualified staff can take four years or more. Additionally, AAEA warns that the effort is likely to cost between $141 and $203 million in lost research. This is on top of the already high levels of currently vacant positions at the agencies (20 and 26 percent for ERS and NIFA respectively) which USDA may have no intention of refilling.
In response to Senator Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) question as to whether he believes that ERS and NIFA will suffer the loss of significant expertise in agriculture research, Dr. Hutchins acknowledged the losses but responded that there will be significant cost savings to grow the agencies in the future. Yet, the costs of replacing and training new staff, reductions in services, as well as the cost incurred from breaking current leases held in Washington DC, have not been accounted for by USDA – points raised in the AAEA report which notes a net loss to the American taxpayer as a result of the relocation.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) was also critical of the move saying in comments to Dr. Hutchins that there is no merit or justification for the relocation which only serves to undermine the mission of both agencies. The Senator also admonished USDA for ignoring and violating previous requests from Congress to provide a cost-benefit analysis. When asked whether USDA will follow the law should Congress either not provide funds for relocation, as requested in the President’s budget, or block the use of funds for relocation, Dr. Hutchins noted that the agency will follow the law.
As of September 30, 2019, ERS and NIFA employees will need to report to Kansas City; among them six new hires. Employees will work from a temporary location in the Kansas City area until a new permanent location is secured – a process that is currently without a timetable or pubicly shared plan. This only deepens current and future employees’ state of uncertainty, who as of yet do not even know where in the Kansas City metropolitan area the permanent location will be housed (Kansas or Missouri).
In addition to the ongoing staff losses and anticipated impacts to essential research programs, the relocation also threatens to erode key partnerships and collaborations that ERS and NIFA have forged in the nation’s capital. The primary direct beneficiaries of ERS, for example, are policy-makers, other federal agencies, and Congress – not farmers in the field. This move will therefore move the agencies farther from their core constituencies. Thus far, there has been no defensible or economic justification provided as to why ERS and NIFA should be uprooted, and no proof that relocation would yield economic or research benefits.
In NSAC’s testimony to the Committee, we highlight serious concerns that the broader sustainable agriculture community has regarding the pending relocation, and urge Congress to halt this misguided decision immediately before any further damage can be done. The House has already included in its FY 2020 spending bill language that would block plans to relocate both agencies from the nation’s capital. The Senate, however, has not yet acted, and will need to address this issue when they take up their respective spending bill for USDA’s FY20 budget.
NSAC will continue to urge the Senate to act with the utmost urgency and join the House in blocking this relocation before the damage inflicted on the agencies, and on agricultural research in general, becomes irreparable.
Categories: Research, Education & Extension