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Perdue and Lawmakers Compete in USDA Relocation Race

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue fired the starting gun for a sprint to move two USDA science agencies to Kansas City before opponents in Congress can stop him. In seven weeks, or possibly sooner, the first of the relocated employees are to report to work in their new offices, according to a USDA time line, with the remaining 447 of them to be in place by September 30.

If the USDA meets its target, the removal of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from Washington will be complete before the October 1 start of the new fiscal year. That’s an important date because the legislative vehicles that could block the moves are bills that apply to fiscal 2020. Congress often needs months to agree on a final version of a bill to send to the president for enactment, so Perdue may be an at advantage.

The House could open debate as early as Tuesday on a “minibus” appropriations bill covering eight federal departments, including the USDA. Language in the bill specifically bars the USDA from spending money to relocate the agencies. Meanwhile, Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen says he will offer an amendment this week in the Senate to keep the ERS and NIFA in Washington. His target is the so-called defense authorization bill that sets spending levels for the military.

“I will continue to fight this tooth and nail,” said Van Hollen, who has placed a “hold” on the Trump administration’s nominee for USDA chief scientist, who would oversee ERS and NIFA. News site Maryland Matters said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who represents a suburban Washington district, said the relocations would disrupt USDA research as well as the lives of the 644 people employed by the agencies; 547 of their jobs are scheduled to move to Kansas City.

Perdue announced the selection of Kansas City on Thursday and reiterated that relocation would save money on rent and salaries, make it easier to recruit analysts from college towns, and put USDA employees closer to “stakeholders.” Opponents say the justifications don’t hold water. Groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists point to repeated administration proposals to slash ERS funding and see an ongoing attempt to gut the agencies.

Congress advised Perdue early this year that it was premature to move ERS and NIFA. He was not deterred. The USDA released a cost-benefit analysis of the relocation — a minimal first step in Congress’s view — at the same time that Perdue named Kansas City as the winner.

According to the analysis, relocating would save the USDA $194 million, or 11%, in salaries and rent over 15 years. Roughly $102 million would come from lower spending on salaries and $92 million from lower rental costs. Federal salaries are tied to office location and formulas on cost of living. Some ERS employees said their salaries would drop 12% if they left Washington.

“USDA intends to transition employees from current locations in Washington, D.C., to the final selected location over a three-month period,” says the cost-benefit analysis. “The first 100 employees are planned to be relocated by August 1. The second wave of an additional 200 by September 1 and finally the remaining 247 by September 30.”

Relocation costs would be an average of $50,000 for each of the 547 employees, said the USDA. Some 294 NIFA employees and 253 ERS employees would be relocated. A portion of agency staff workers — 21 in NIFA and 76 at ERS —would stay in Washington.

The USDA botched a planned step of courtesy by announcing the relocation to the public before notifying ERS and NIFA employees, reported Politico. A day before, Perdue said that out of respect, he would tell them first. Instead, a notice to employees was distributed after the news was public. Some ERS and NIFA employees stood and turned their backs on Perdue at a briefing on Thursday afternoon. The Hagstrom Report said the protest was coordinated by the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the workers.

To read Perdue’s letter to employees, click here.

The USDA cost-benefit analysis is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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