In the ongoing saga of the proposed relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) – the U.S. Department of Agriculture's key research agencies – USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) concluded this week that USDA may have broken the law in its decision to relocate the agencies without first obtaining congressional approval.
OIG began its investigation in November. The report, however, comes days after White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney claimed that the relocation is part of the Trump Administration’s efforts to “drain the swamp.” At a GOP fund-raiser in South Carolina on Friday, Mulvaney said the mass exodus at ERS and NIFA -- with nearly half of employees at the research agencies choosing not to make the move to a “real part of the country” -- should be heralded.
“Now, it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker,” he said on Friday, citing his own experiences. “What a wonderful way to streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”
In a joint statement, House Agriculture Committee leading Democrats Reps. Marcia Fudge (D., Ohio) and Stacey Plaskett (D., Virgin Islands) said the report is just the latest in a long line of red flags surrounding this relocation.
“We are alarmed that USDA continues to proceed with this move without consulting Congress or — according to the OIG — following the necessary legal requirements. Couple that with White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s comments over the weekend on relocations as a mechanism for staff reduction, and this whole exercise is a naked and shameless attempt to force dedicated civil servants out of their livelihoods,” the statement noted.
During a mid-July hearing, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) called the relocation a “demolition” as well as “a thinly veiled, ideological attempt to drive away key USDA employees and bypass the intent of Congress.”
Other groups also voiced concerns about USDA’s attempt to circumvent Congress.
“If USDA can ignore the appropriations acts that Congress passes and the President signs by saying, after the fact, that they are unconstitutional, then there is little reason to continue to have appropriations bills,” said Juli Obudzinski, interim policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “The new report from the Office of Inspector General brings into sharp relief the need for Congress, on a bipartisan basis, to re-assert its authority. We urge Congress to take this information as an opportunity to end, once and for all, [Agriculture Secretary Sonny] Perdue’s strong-arm tactics and stop all action on the relocations until Congress has given its formal approval – or denial.”
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union representing ERS and NIFA employees, also reported that negotiations broke down in recent weeks as employees continue to determine whether to make the move. USDA has required all employees to report to Kansas City by Sept. 30, but the agency only has a temporary location right now while it continues to evaluate a permanent spot.
AFGE said in a statement Aug. 5 that USDA has “created chaos, confusion and frustration among employees as its officials, including Secretary Sonny Perdue, made contradicting statements and walked back on their proposals in an attempt to rush scientists and researchers out of Washington, D.C., by the end of September.”
According to USDA’s plan, employees had until July 15 to either accept or decline relocation, but officials told reporters and employees they could change their minds before the reporting date of Sept. 30. In fact, in its relocation questions and answers, USDA stated:
“Employees can change their minds regarding their decision up until the Friday before the report date but should be aware of possible consequences. Employees changing their minds from a yes to a no will go through the adverse action procedures, beginning with the proposal to remove letter. The estimated length of the process is up to 45 days. Final action on a removal notice could impact when the employee may receive severance, if eligible. Specific circumstances will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.”
The union noted that ERS also reneged on a tentative agreement reached with AFGE on July 24. ERS management, including acting ERS administrator Ephraim Leibtag, agreed to:
- Request from USDA the authority to allow employees who have agreed to relocate to telework for six months or until a permanent location in the Kansas City area is operational;
- Provide temporary housing for employees for at least 60 days;
- Request from USDA the authority to offer a one-month salary bonus for relocation, and
- Codify that employees have until Sept. 27 to change their minds.
Both sides were supposed to sign the agreement on July 25, but ERS management cancelled the meeting, and the agreement was never signed.