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Agriculture Department's relocation of ERS and NIFA: A solution in search of a problem
Earlier this year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) federal agencies from Washington, DC to the recently chosen Kansas City, Mo. Moving ERS and NIFA is a hasty solution in search of a nonexistent problem that wastes taxpayer money and will harm U.S. agriculture.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the rationale for the move is to save taxpayer money and move the agencies closer to stakeholders. Upon closer examination, these reasons do not hold water. First, farmers and ranchers may be informed by ERS reports, but they are not direct recipients or users of most of the ERS products. ERS and NIFA are not regulatory or farm program agencies. These agencies do not implement farm programs like the Farm Services Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service. Nor do they inspect meat and poultry plants like the Food Safety and Inspection Service. ERS and NIFA research policy to advance agriculture-related sciences. The best place for these agencies is close to the center of policymaking, Washington, DC.
Additionally, the USDA decided to move the agencies out of the capital region before they even did a cost-benefit analysis, so it is unclear how they determined it would save taxpayer money. When the department finally did a cost-benefit analysis, the Government Accountability Office determined it was misleading and incomplete. USDA's own estimate found average savings of just .13% of the total funding provided for ERS and NIFA in FY19-not even a full percentage point. An independent group of economists, The Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), that includes two former ERS administrators, found that the move would actually cost taxpayers between $37 to 128 million, instead of saving money, due to a loss of talent.
Furthermore, the USDA already owns empty spaces in the capital region that could accommodate ERS and NIFA rent-free, while avoiding relocation, buy out, and early retirement costs-but this option wasn't included in the official USDA cost-benefit analysis.
Not only does moving ERS and NIFA to Kansas City not make financial sense, it will set the agencies back for years due to loss of experienced, highly-specialized employees-yet another cost not accounted for in the department's insufficient cost-benefit analysis. Employees are already quitting in anticipation of the move. Internal sources say the retirement rate has doubled since the move was announced, and on one day at the end of April, six people quit at ERS. According to a new union survey, nearly 70 percent of the ERS employees ordered to move to Kansas City will instead quit their jobs. The level of experience these agencies will lose cannot be replaced quickly or found just anywhere.
As chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, I dedicated an entire hearing to this proposed relocation. We heard from four former USDA officials with a total of 70 years of experience in the ERS and NIFA over several administrations, a senior advisor to Secretary Perdue, and later in a separate hearing, Secretary Perdue himself. None of the former ERS and NIFA officials who testified agreed with the move. Nearly 110 agriculture science and food related organizations, at least 37 deans of university agriculture departments, several former government officials, and more than 1150 individual scientists from 47 states publicly oppose the move.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science and more than a dozen land-grant universities-most of them in the heartland to which the Trump administration wanted the agencies to be closer-have sent a letter to Senate appropriators urging them to stop the move because it "sends a clear message that agricultural research is not as important as research funded by the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and numerous other major research agencies."
Secretary Perdue himself remarked, "I'm just amazed that all those people you mentioned could be wrong." I too wonder how all these experienced professionals could be wrong and why only the Trump administration seems to think this is a good idea. Employees at both agencies believe the move is punishment for research that did not align with the Trump administration's agenda.
If the USDA succeeds in moving ERS and NIFA to Kansas City, there is no question it will disrupt normal operations that may never return to their previous efficiency and power. Our nation's agriculture industry cannot afford delays to the vital economic data that ERS provides and the technological innovations developed through NIFA support. It's ironic the proposal to relocate research and data-driven agencies seems to have no hard data supporting it. We should not harm our farmers and researchers by weakening the well-established infrastructure for research that has kept American agriculture No. 1 in the world.
Bishop is chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies.