D.C.-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated

D.C.-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated
© Washington Post/Pool

Democratic lawmakers, many from the capital region, are looking to halt relocation of major government agencies to areas outside the Beltway, pushing legislation that would require the administration to justify the costs of doing so.

The Trump administration has moved several agencies out of D.C., each time losing as much as 70 percent of career staffers in the process.

“The Trump administration’s hollowing out of our federal agencies and attacks on our civil service have left us with an alarming void of expertise that will undermine the work of our government scientists and researchers for years to come,” Rep. Jennifer WextonJennifer Lynn WextonRepublicans face worsening outlook in battle for House Ocasio-Cortez rejects Yoho apology as disingenuous Democratic lawmakers launch 'Mean Girls'-inspired initiative to promote face masks MORE (D-Va.) said in a release.

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The legislation would require the administration to conduct a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis to back the move — an element lacking as the Trump administration moved research agencies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to new locations.

Wexton said the bill “prevents partisan efforts to undermine the mission of our federal agencies.”

The BLM move would leave just 61 employees in Washington while establishing a small headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., and scattering other employees across the West.

A cost-benefit analysis for the BLM move obtained by The Hill in January was just two pages — a sharp departure from analysis expected to fill a binder — and did little to back the agency’s reasoning that the move will save taxpayers millions.

“This is a highly incomplete basis for informing a policy decision,” said Craig Thornton, an economist and president of the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis, who reviewed the documents at the request of The Hill.

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The Trump administration estimated the relocation will save $123 million over 20 years through reduced salary and lease costs.

But the document lacked key details to explain the savings, giving only top-line figures without explaining how many employees they believe will move or how much it will cost to move each employee. 

The Hill has since learned that just 68 of the 222 employees originally slated to move have agreed to do so, or 30 percent of the agency’s Washington workforce. 

The move at USDA caused a similar flight, as the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture were moved to Kansas City, Mo. Roughly two-thirds of those USDA employees left the agency rather than move. 

The 11-page cost benefit analysis accompanying the USDA move was released in June when employees were told they had roughly two months to move.

Democratic lawmakers have argued the moves are designed to stifle agency work opposed by the administration.

USDA’s research outlets conducted numerous studies on climate change and food stamps while funding university-level research. BLM’s work can at times stand in the way of oil and gas development.

“The move ran contrary to the best interests of the agencies, undermined their missions to support essential research for American farmers, and ultimately wasted taxpayer dollars,” Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenDemocrats shy from leading court fight over Trump orders Exclusive: Democrats seek to increase racial diversity of pandemic relief oversight board Overnight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors MORE (D-Md.), one of the sponsors of the bill, said in a statement about the USDA move.

“This legislation would help protect federal workers and agencies from the political whims of President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE or any future president, and ensure they can continue their service on behalf of Americans,” he continued.