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Congress takes action to limit USDA's planned ERS, NIFA move

Appropriations bill includes language to require USDA report on costs for proposed move and Agriculture Research Integrity Act halts USDA’s plans.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). outside Washington, DC, and realign ERS from the USDA research arm to the USDA office of the chief economist continues to draw greater scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Congress reintroduced the Agricultural Research Integrity Act (ARIA), H.R. 1221, and also included explanatory statement language accompanying the fiscal year 2019 (FY19) consolidated appropriations act slowing down the USDA research arm restructuring.

Report language was included in a statement of the appropriator managers which stated, “The conferees are concerned about the unknown costs associated with the proposed move of the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service to a new location outside of the National Capital Region.  In submitting the fiscal year 2020 budget justification, the Department is directed to include all cost estimates for the proposed move of the two agencies, as well as a detailed analysis of any research benefits of their relocation. There is an expectation that this process will be followed in the future for any other potential proposed agency relocations by the Department.”

The managers’ statement added, “The conferees support an indefinite delay in the proposed transfer of ERS to the Office of the Chief Economist. At this time, the conferees find it appropriate for ERS to remain under the Research, Education and Economics mission area.  The conferees take this position as several questions remain about the merits of the proposed transfer as well as the proposed relocation of ERS outside of the National Capital Region. Insufficient information and justification relating to the reorganization and relocation make moving forward on these proposals premature at this time.”

Also during the week the appropriations bill was passed, Reps. Chellie Pingree (D., Maine), Sanford Bishop (D., Ga), and 12 other members of Congress reintroduced the Agriculture Research Integrity Act of 2019 (ARIA), H.R.1221, with the aim of laying the legislative groundwork to oppose the relocation.

The proposal to relocate and reorganize ERS and NIFA) was proposed by USDA last summer, but critics say this decision is being carried out without any policy or cost analysis or economic justification. Along with citing concerns for USDA’s decision, the bill reaffirms the primary locations of ERS and NIFA within Washington–Baltimore–Arlington combined statistical area. The bill also stipulates that the authority to administer the agencies lies with the Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE) and that it may not be vested in another mission area or office within USDA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition explained.

American Statistical Assn. executive director Ron Wasserstein said he’s pleased and grateful for the reintroduction of the Agricultural Research Integrity Act and the explanatory statement language. “Scientific societies; agricultural research leaders; government statistics experts; land-grant university deans, vice presidents and presidents; members of Congress; and many others have all expressed their concerns and opposition to USDA’s ill-conceived and counterproductive plans. By proceeding with their rushed plans, USDA disregards the perspective not only of the vocal members of Congress but also the broader USDA agricultural and food research community. ARIA’s reintroduction and the FY19 language sends a powerful message, and we urge Secretary [Sonny] Perdue to be responsive and to withdraw his plans,” Wasserstein said.

As a sign of the broad concern for USDA’s unilateral restructuring of its research arm, 58 organizations signed a February 1 letter thanking House and Senate appropriators for the report language accompanying their yet-to-be consolidated FY19 spending bills regarding the proposed ERS and NIFA moves. Furthermore, the letter of current and former university agricultural administration leaders and former USDA chief scientists—led by Dr. Gale Buchanan and Dr. Catherine Woteki—has now garnered 51 signers. The letter urges Congress to “intervene to stop the restructuring of REE at least until there has been a comprehensive independent study and full consultation with the stakeholder community.”

By keeping ERS and NIFA under the purview of the USDA’s chief scientist and close to the center of federal policymaking, the legislation introduced would safeguard science from ideological influence and ensure agency scientists can continue their effective collaboration, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Mike Lavender, senior manager of government affairs for the Food and Environment Program at UCS, said in a statement, “Nonpartisan research produced by the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture is critical to informing policy decisions that affect agriculture and our food supply. At a time of mounting threats—from climate instability and declining farm profits to diet-related diseases and agricultural pollution—Secretary Perdue’s pernicious proposal would detract from USDA’s science-based mission and leave farmers in the lurch.”

Nichelle Harriot, policy specialist at NSAC, said, “The location of these core research and statistical analysis agencies in the heart of Washington DC is central to their ability to fully represent America’s farmers when key decisions are made in the capital,”

Harriot said this bill, in combination with the 2019 agriculture appropriations conference report language signed into law, “should serve as a clear signal to USDA that it must halt its hastily planned moves of NIFA and ERS. Should Secretary Perdue choose to ignore this clear mandate, we urge Congress to use their powers of the purse to stop this misguided process in its tracks.”

 

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