In a House agriculture appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continued to defend, while past administrators and agency officials opposed, USDA’s plans on relocating the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) outside of the National Capital Region and the ERS realignment under the purview of the Office of the Chief Economist.
Kristin Boswell, senior advisor to the secretary of agriculture, tried to alleviate concerns brought by the handful of representatives who questioned her. She said USDA remains confident that both ERS and NIFA can remain objective and trusted sources of information if moved outside the Washington, D.C., region and gave the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention as an example, with its headquarters in Atlanta, Ga.
Boswell also said the decision to make the move outside of the Beltway was “not made rashly,” and the ongoing process to perform site evaluate continues to include stakeholder involvement, including current ERS and NIFA staff. She said the proposal will reduce costs for taxpayers as well as offer improved living conditions for employees.
Boswell said USDA has received “stacks and stacks of support letters” from local communities around the country. She pointed to the interest of more than 130 sites for the relocation, which have already been narrowed in half, and in the coming days or possibly weeks, additional narrowing of potential sites will be done. She said the goal is a final site recommendation to the secretary by early May.
Boswell identified approximately 76 employees at ERS who have been determined as critical for remaining in the Washington, D.C., region, or approximately one-third of the agency, with the remaining 253 employees to be relocated. NIFA has different roles and missions, and as such, only 20 staff members are deemed critical functions in staying in the National Capitol Region. NIFA would have 315 staff members relocated based on currently appropriated staffing levels, she said.
Regarding the claim and criticism that the realignment of ERS to the Office of the Chief Economist would somehow diminish credibility, Boswell said, “We fundamentally disagree,” and added that there is more potential for politicization by ERS remaining under the Research, Education & Economics division.
In response to the closing statement from House agriculture appropriations subcommittee chairman Rep. Sanford Bishop (D., Ga.) saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Boswell responded that USDA is always looking for ways to be better and more responsive.
“We believe we can be better and should be better,” Boswell said, adding that the primary customers and facilitators of research are the agriculture and food sectors, and those are located outside of the Beltway.
A second panel consisted of Gale Buchanan and Catherine Woteki, the USDA chief scientists and undersecretaries under President George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively, as well as Katherine Smith Evans, who served as ERS administrator under George W. Bush and Obama, and John Lee Jr., who, from October 1981 through June 1993, served as the administrator of ERS during his 32-year career at USDA’s research division. All unanimously voiced their opposition to the proposed move and realignment.
Woteki noted that the President’s budget request reflected a deep cut to the ERS budget, so this reorganization is at “direct odds” of how Boswell presented the support for the future of ERS. In her testimony, Woteki said the budget request proposes cutting 170 staff years from ERS. Since the announcement, she said ERS has already lost experienced, well-trained staff.
Woteki said the proposal is “ill-considered and terribly damaging to ag’s future.”
Evans said USDA’s rationale for relocation to be closer to its stakeholders also does not coincide with reality, explaining, “While farmers and ranchers are informed by USDA work, they are not direct recipients or users of it.” She added that it is not comparable to a farm program agency that must work directly with agricultural producers and that she doesn’t see how recruitment of highly trained individuals would increase if taken to rural America.
“It won’t work, because you won’t be able to recruit the best and brightest, even in the best rural area,” Evans said. She said many who work at ERS are married to people who also have jobs in the Washington, D.C., region and noted, “This is where the market is for economic analysis.”
Buchanan said while this might appear to be a simple administrative change of realigning the research agencies, it could have far-reaching effects. He has helped spearhead more than 75 agricultural leaders in sending a letter to congressional leaders on their concerns about the move and realignment.
In a letter signed by more than 100 organizations earlier this week, those opposed to the move stated: "Our shared fundamental belief is that the proposed relocation and reorganization will undermine the quality and breadth of the work these agencies support and perform – work that is vital to informing and supporting U.S. agriculture, food security and rural development. The rationale provided by the USDA for the relocation also fails to identify problems substantive enough to justify such a disruption of ERS’s and NIFA’s operations and jeopardizes the much-needed growth in funding for both agencies’ programs."
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Michael Conaway (R., Texas) and Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R., Mo.) led 30 of their Republican colleagues, including all House Agriculture Committee Republicans, in sending a letter to House agriculture appropriators in support of the planned move.
“We believe relocating ERS and NIFA would build upon USDA’s capacity and improve the agency’s ability to recruit top talent from universities across the nation while being closer to rural America and reducing taxpayer expenditures,” they said.