Would moving the agency make it closer to the heart of agricultural output, or politicize their work by biasing their findings in favor of the current administration?
Since 1961, the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service (ERS) has analyzed financial impacts of the department’s policies. The ERS is based in the nation’s capital and is nonpartisan in its analysis — but both those two facts might soon change.
ERS’s reports recently had been frequently finding — and publicly reporting — negative economic effects of the Trump Administration’s agriculture policies, implemented under Secretary Sonny Perdue. Needless to say, Trump and Perdue strongly dislike their own department undercutting their claims of agricultural economic success. The White House’s proposed budget for Congress suggested cutting ERS staff by more than half.
The newest ploy is trying to move the ERS from D.C. to Trump-friendly states. The three current finalists are Indiana, North Carolina, and (Kansas City) Missouri. The move would take place within four months.
Purdue also wants to reorganize the ERS so it’s run by the Agriculture Department’s chief economist, a position that reports more directly to himself. Currently, it’s run by the more apolitical Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics.
What the bill does
The Agriculture Research Integrity Act would keep the ERS in the nation’s capital and maintain it under the Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics.
It was introduced in the House on February 14 as bill number H.R. 1221, by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME1).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the status quo is working, and the attempt to move the government offices is a political ploy.
“The National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service are already doing great work to support American farmers and consumers right where they are,” Rep. Pingree said in a press release. “Uprooting these key agencies is absolutely unnecessary and risks weakening them when our nation’s food system and agricultural economy need them most.”
“My colleagues and I have repeatedly sent this message to the Secretary,” Rep. Pingree continued. “Since he’s forging ahead regardless of our feedback — or the concerns of the nation’s agriculture research scientists — this bill is a necessary step.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the planned move to the Midwest saves money, and makes more sense than basing a major agricultural agency in an urban downtown.
“USDA is undertaking the relocations for three main reasons,” the agency wrote in a press release announcing the planned move.
- To improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities. USDA has experienced significant turnover in these positions, and it has been difficult to recruit employees to the Washington, DC area, particularly given the high cost of living and long commutes.
- “To place these important USDA resources closer to many of stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from the Washington, DC area.
- “To benefit the American taxpayers. There will be significant savings on employment costs and rent, which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets.”
As for the reorganization of the agency, the department argued it makes logistical sense. “Moving ERS back together with [the chief economist] simply makes sense because the two have similar missions. ERS studies and anticipates trends and emerging issues, while [the chief economist] advises the Secretary and Congress on the economic implications of policies and programs.”
Odds of passage
The bill has attracted 16 House cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Agriculture Committee.
Even if the bill were to pass the House, the Republican-controlled Senate would likely oppose it. After all, every House Agriculture Committee Republican supports the Agriculture Department’s move.