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USDA nixes release of multiple reports over researcher exodus
Internal memos show the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will be unable to release a number of its regular reports as nearly 80 percent of employees at one of its research branches have left the agency as it relocates to Kansas City, Mo.
The memos obtained by The Hill show USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) will delay or not release a number of nearly complete reports and is quashing other early stage research as it struggles to maintain basic functions with its decreased workforce.
"Due to decreased staffing levels, ERS will for considerable time be unable to provide the same level of breadth and depth in its economic research and outlook analysis as it did in the past," the memo said before listing reports that will be delayed or discontinued until further notice, including those on major commodities, food stamps and rural economies.
USDA announced in June that it would be moving ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Kansas City, despite advice from their own internal watchdog that such a move may be illegal.
Figures collected by ERS employees show just 16 Washington-based employees have moved to Kansas City while another 141 have left the agency since the USDA began looking for a new headquarters for its two research organizations. Twenty-four employees slated to move to Kansas City have been given permission to temporarily remain in Washington.
A number of government agencies, farm groups and economists rely on data from ERS to do their jobs.
"You can see in the amount of reports delayed are on a huge variety of topics that are hugely important right now like the opioid epidemic, tariffs and trade. These are important things that need to be dealt with. We can't offer anything right now because we're losing so much staff and expertise that can't easily be replaced," said Laura Dodson, an ERS employee who serves as vice president of their union, American Federal Government Employee Local 3404.
The massive flight of ERS staff and the struggle to maintain workflow at the department could be a warning sign to other federal agencies considering uprooting their Washington-based staff.
The Department of Interior announced in July it would be moving 300 D.C.-based Bureau of Land Management employees to locations across the West. Critics say spreading out staff across numerous offices will functionally dismantle the agency.
The ERS memo showed that reports and pages on county-level oil and gas production; high-demand commodities like corn, cotton and soybeans; as well as the food stamp policy database and food pricing will all be delayed or discontinued.
"A lot of those reports are delayed because the entire publishing service team quit - all of our editors, all of our writers, all of our designers. So even if we have the research there, we can't physically get it out because the team is gone," Dodson said.
Even the team responsible for helping to organize peer review of articles has gone down from seven to one.
Other early-stage reports that may not be released include research on honeybees, how food stamps impact rural economies, the drivers of the opioid epidemic and health insurance coverage in farming households.
A spokesperson for the agency stressed that many mandated deadlines will still be met.
"ERS has taken important action to ensure mission continuity and delivery of mission critical work throughout the transition, and as a result, the agency is on track to complete its mandated and calendared projects," the agency told The Hill by email.
The memo's final note says "Next steps will include developing consistent external messaging for delayed and/or discontinued products."
But the missed deadlines are already causing problems with lawmakers. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, sent to a letter to USDA head Sonny Perdue late Friday demanding a thorough explanation for how the department would meet Congressionally mandated deadlines.
"The Department recently told my staff that the relocation would not delay ERS reports," she wrote, criticizing the agency's strategy for dealing with vacancies.
"The Department recently told my staff that in the interim, it will hire back retired employees on a part-time basis and detail employees from other agencies to fill in the holes while they hire new employees. It seems counter-productive to terminate current employees to simply hire others back on a part time basis," she said.
Dodson said ERS employees who have moved to Kansas City have complained of delays in doing their job, as the server system there makes it time-consuming to connect to the shared datasets they rely on. She also said that just two or three of the 24 employees who have gotten their move temporarily delayed plan to move to Kansas City.
White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said in August that the USDA move was "a wonderful way to sort of streamline government."
Dodson said his comments along with an Office of Inspector General report questioning the legality of the move highlight major problems with the relocation.
"It shows they are doing it without authority and with malice," she said.
Updated at 3:10 p.m.