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INSIDE WASHINGTON: Bill keeps USDA research agencies in Capitol

INSIDE WASHINGTON: Bill keeps USDA research agencies in Capitol
House Democrats urge Congress to block USDA’s planned moves of ERS and NIFA agencies outside Beltway.

Responding to the Trump Administration’s plan to relocate and reorganize the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA), Democrat members of the House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture introduced a new bill aimed at halting the move outside Washington, D.C.

The bill seeks to address some of the research community’s gravest concerns about the potential relocation and reorganization of the agencies by codifying that the primary location of ERS and NIFA is within the combined statistical area of Washington/Baltimore, Md./Arlington, Va., and that all USDA Research, Education & Economics (REE) agencies are to remain administratively within the REE Mission Area.

In addition to rooting the physical locations of ERS and NIFA within the Washington Capital Region, the bill also stipulates that the authority to administer the agencies lies with the undersecretary for REE and that it may not be vested in another mission area or office within USDA.

The American Statistical Assn. (ASA), together with the greater USDA research and statistics stakeholder community, has been urging Congress to block USDA’s moves to relocate ERS and NIFA and realign ERS under the chief economist since first announced in August.

Opponents of the move warned that uprooting the agencies would isolate them from key partnerships with other federal research agencies, front-line USDA agencies and key stakeholders within the broader research community. Critics also pointed to the loss of highly experienced and educated staff who would likely not move with the agencies, as well as the harm the move would do to national efforts to increase agricultural research funding.

“While we recognize the bill won’t become law in this Congress, we hope it draws further attention to USDA’s counterproductive and poorly justified upheaval of USDA’s research arm,” ASA executive director Ron Wasserstein said.

“It’s integral to the core mission and functions of both ERS and NIFA that these agencies remain in the Washington Capital Area,” said Nichelle Harriott, policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). “Maintaining proximity to other federal scientific and USDA agencies, as well as to the region’s larger scientific community, is what allows ERS and NIFA to engage in so many beneficial partnerships and collaborations. Relocating them would isolate the agencies from the resources of the Washington Capital Area – resources that are unparalleled anywhere else in the nation. Making this decision without stakeholder engagement or even a cost/benefit analysis is a hasty move that will ultimately hurt all of American agriculture if it is allowed to go forward.”

The legislation, the Agriculture Research Integrity Act of 2018 (ARIA), was led by Reps. Chellie Pingree (D., Maine), Sanford Bishop (D., Ga.), Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.) and Mark Pocan (D., Wis.). House Agriculture Committee members Reps. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), Marcia Fudge (D., Ohio), Jimmy Panetta (D., Cal.), Annie Kuster (D., N.H.), plus Rep. Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) and delegate to the House Eleanor Holmes Norton (D., D.C.) also added their names as co-sponsors.

With every minority member of the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee signed on to the bill, it is now clear that the Administration will face strong opposition not only from stakeholder communities but also from the new Congress, NSAC said in a statement on the bill.  

“ARIA sends a clear message to the Administration that reorganizing ERS under the Office of the Chief Economist in the Secretary’s Office is not in the best interest of U.S. agriculture nor the scientific community writ large,” Harriott said. “Maintaining the integrity and political independence of our nation’s federal research agencies is of the utmost importance. We urge the secretary to reconsider this plan and encourage agricultural appropriators in both parties and both chambers to take action by blocking any attempt to reorganize and relocate ERS and NIFA.”

Others in the broader USDA research and statistical stakeholder community also praised the bill and the sponsors.

“Output of American agriculture has increased two-and-a-half times over the past half-century with no increases in total inputs,” said Gale Buchanan, USDA chief scientist and undersecretary for REE under President George W. Bush. “This has been made possible by new information, knowledge and technology developed by agriculture research, enabling farmers to use their time and resources more efficiently. NIFA and ERS play a vital role in supporting this effort. To relocate these agencies to some remote location away from the proximity to other research agencies and related activities would greatly diminish their role in coordinating and supporting the research of the nation’s land-grant and other universities.”

Kitty Smith Evans, ERS administrator under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said decades of widespread and profound trust in ERS statistics and analyses would be preserved by the current House bill. "ERS professionals have deep expertise and are highly motivated to produce and disseminate accurate and unbiased information. I hope the House bill will prevent any more of its staff from leaving the agency out of fear for its future," Evans said.

“This bill would ensure that ERS is fully funded and fully functional -- necessary to understanding the impacts of the new farm bill that will spend some $850 billion over the next eight years on programs that touch more than 40 million Americans,” said Susan Offutt, ERS administrator under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. 

Thus far, 136 expressions of interest have been submitted by various institutions from several states interested in hosting the relocated agencies. USDA has indicated that it intends to announce the new locations of ERS and NIFA in February 2019 and to proceed with physical relocation by the summer.

TAGS: Policy
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