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Former USDA officials unified in opposing ERS relocation plans

USDA relocation plans draw concern from 56 former officials spanning five decades who caution Congress' changes will harm agriculture and rural economy.

Manifesting alarm over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan to reorganize and relocate two statistical and research agencies, 56 former USDA and federal statistical agency officials, including former deputy and undersecretaries, have written to Congress to warn of the likely damage to U.S. agriculture and to urge that the proposed plans be abandoned.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced in August that USDA’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) and Economic Research Service (ERS) would be moved out of Washington, D.C., to save money and be closer to the agricultural community. USDA also said the move would help tackle the poor job retention rate at ERS, which was significantly higher than for USDA as a whole.

“I urge the Administration to seriously consider the concerns of the many stakeholders who place high value on the data, research and other intelligence provided by the Economic Research Service and avoid actions that threaten the long-term viability of the agency or its near-term productivity,” said John Lee, ERS administrator under former presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

“USDA’s justification for this upheaval of evidence-based policy-making is completely lacking,” said Katherine Smith Evans, ERS administrator under former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“The USDA’s 'evidence lite' justification for USDA to so radically uproot its world-class research, economics and statistical agencies is the reason the Economic Research Service should be kept in Washington, D.C., and in the USDA research arm. We need its objective and respected analysis to support evidence-based policy-making in our $1 trillion food, agriculture and rural economy,” said Susan Offutt, ERS administrator under Clinton and George W. Bush.

The American Statistical Assn. noted that USDA’s numbers on ERS were inflated by including summer interns, who all leave after their internships. Far from helping ERS retain employees, the move is likely to create a brain drain as economists and statisticians elect to either retire or keep their families in their current homes and schools.

“Major relocation of a significant portion of the staff will result in many separations and a disastrous loss of expertise, from which it would take years to recover,” Lee said.

Other signatories questioned how moving the agencies to a location outside Washington could bring them closer to the agricultural community they serve.

“It’s hard to imagine Florida, Georgia and other southern producers benefiting from USDA moving their research and economic statistical agencies to Fargo (N.D.) or Topeka (Kan.) or anywhere outside of D.C.," said Georgia native Gale Buchanan, USDA chief scientist under George W. Bush. “Both as a researcher and especially as an agricultural administrator who made periodic visits to Washington, D.C., I could visit ERS, other agricultural agencies and other federal agencies, along with visits with the states’ congressional delegations. Like it or not, ERS becomes less relevant outside of Washington.”

“Because food and agricultural policy is primarily a federal responsibility, much of the agency’s constituency — which includes farm organizations — is clustered around Washington, D.C.,” said Neilson Conklin, who headed the ERS Market & Trade Economics Division under Clinton and George W. Bush. “Although ERS research and analysis also provide critical information for farmers, ranchers and agricultural businesses to make the decisions necessary to adapt, compete and survive, it is hard to see how moving ERS to a single location outside of the Washington area will bring the agency any closer to this group of constituents.”

Moving the agencies outside Washington will also make collaborating with other federal agencies and advising Congress more difficult. The ERS “research agenda arises largely from the activities of every agency of USDA, and its research results are directly applicable to the food and agricultural policies debated and adopted by Congress,” said John A. Schnittker, undersecretary and deputy secretary for USDA under former president Lyndon Johnson. “The Economic Research Service should remain in Washington.”

Richard E. Rominger, USDA deputy secretary under Clinton, concurred, saying, “My fear is that moving the agencies out of Washington will diminish their effectiveness in interacting with policy-makers in the Administration and Congress.”

“Collaborations with other federal statistical agencies have been key to ERS success in creating new information and analysis to support USDA’s food and nutrition programs,” said Laurian Unnevehr, former head of ERS Food Economics in the Obama Administration. “Moving ERS outside of the Capitol region would weaken these ongoing efforts to develop new data about food consumers and food consumption patterns.”

Former National Agricultural Statistics Service administrator Cynthia Clark agreed. “ERS maximizes the value of agricultural statistics by using them in combination with other official statistics and program data to objectively address critical societal issues relevant to agricultural production (e.g., environment, food and nutrition, rural life, energy, trade and climate change),” Clark said. “This work relies on organizational independence from the policy arm of USDA and collaboration with statistical and program agencies situated in the Washington, D.C., area.”

Signatories to the letter worked under nine administrations and included a wide range of USDA officials; they were joined by many past directors of the U.S. Census Bureau and leaders of other federal statistical agencies. The letter was organized by the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics and the American Statistical Assn.

The outpouring of concern is without recent precedent. As noted by Katherine Wallman, former chief statistician of the U.S. and president of the American Statistical Assn. in 1992, “USDA’s dismantling of the Economic Research Service is the biggest threat to a federal statistical agency in many years. Its actions undermine the autonomy that is critical to ERS’s credibility and effectiveness. Now, more than ever, we need to strengthen our federal statistical agencies so they can maintain their bedrock role in the U.S. data infrastructure. Congress should intervene to keep ERS the world-class, respected agency it is and prevent this nonsensical move.”

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