Democrats grill USDA official on relocation plans that gut research staff

Democrats grill USDA official on relocation plans that gut research staff
© Greg Nash

Democrats on Thursday hammered a Department of Agriculture (USDA) official over controversial plans to move two agencies to Kansas City, a decision that is expected to cost the department two-thirds of its research staff.

At a hearing before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, Democrats voiced long-held concerns about the department's rationale for uprooting their research staff.

“It’s clear to me that this is not a relocation. It’s a demolition. It’s a thinly veiled, ideological attempt to drive away key USDA employees and bypass the intent of Congress,” said committee ranking member Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants Senators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls Democrats warn Biden against releasing SCOTUS list MORE (D-Mich.). 

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The agency announced on June 13 that it would move its two research agencies to the Kansas City area, giving employees a month to decide whether to relocate or lose their jobs. Nearly two-thirds of staff said they will be leaving the agency rather than leaving Washington, D.C., where they currently work.

The USDA has said the move will save money and put employees closer to stakeholders like farmers. Employees unionized earlier this summer in response to the move and will have their first meeting with USDA leaders tomorrow. 

The two agencies being affected, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, constitute the bulk of USDA researchers. The agencies either study or fund research into food stamps, climate change, rural poverty and conservation farming.

Employees at the two agencies told The Hill that the number of employees leaving is likely to grow. Many colleagues have said they will go to Kansas City only as a last resort, hoping to find other jobs before the Sept. 30 deadline to report for work in a new city. 

“It is still unclear to me what problem the USDA is trying to solve with this move,” Stabenow said. “We do know what problems it is creating.”

With the move slated to drain most of the staff at USDA’s two research agencies, Democrats said they were concerned the department will lose valuable expertise.

Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseySenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Fred Upton says it is 'tragic' to see Americans reject masks, social distancing; Russia claims it will approve COVID-19 vaccine by mid-August People with disabilities see huge job losses; will pandemic roll back ADA gains? MORE Jr. (D-Pa.) said the agency may be losing thousands of years of expertise on complex issues as 250 people plan to leave the agency. 

The USDA has said the move will save $300 million dollars over 15 years, though some senators complained the agency has not been forthcoming about the cost-benefit analysis that went into the decision. 

A different cost-benefit analysis from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association found the move would cost taxpayers between $83 million and $182 million.

An agency official defended the plan at the hearing. Scott Hutchins, the deputy under secretary for research, education, and economics at the USDA, said the agency plans to use cost savings from the move to hire new employees and even grow the agency. 

“This is an opportunity for us to have this agency grow and be sustainable in the long term,” he told lawmakers.

But Democrats said they did not buy that explanation.

“I don’t see where it has any merit or justification. I think it really undermines the mission of both agencies. Saying that is really an understatement,” Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing Vermont has a chance to show how bipartisanship can tackle systemic racism MORE (D-Vt.) told Hutchins. 

Some Republicans on the committee applauded the move, saying it would bring government officials closer to the people their policies affected.

“It makes sense to be in the middle of where the breadbasket is. And when it comes to the talent pool I’ve got to believe there is more of it in the universities that specialize in ag in that area as well,” said Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal Negotiators hit gas on coronavirus talks as frustration mounts Lawmakers aim for COVID-19 relief deal this week MORE (R-Ind.). 

But many GOP lawmakers ignored the controversy over the relocation and pending staff losses entirely, focusing their questions for Hutchins on the department’s plans for dealing with chronic wasting disease, foot and mouth disease, and African swine fever.

Employees at the two agencies told The Hill they’ve been frustrated by what they see as a lack of knowledge among top USDA staff about their work. 

“I think the biggest misconception around this is, we don’t serve individual farmers,” Laura Dodson, an agricultural economist with ERS who is now a union steward told The Hill previously. “Our stakeholders are primarily Congress and program leads and agencies and nonprofits in D.C. or people that come to meet with multiple entities in D.C."