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Senate vs. House Confrontation Looms Over Relocating ERS and NIFA

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to approve a bill on Thursday that effectively approves Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s removal of two research agencies to Kansas City from Washington, setting up a clash with House leaders. The $151.7 billion USDA-FDA funding bill includes $25 million for moving expenses, yet the House has refused to pay for relocation of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“Let’s get to (House-Senate) conference and work it out,” said North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven on Tuesday after his Appropriations subcommittee cleared the USDA-FDA bill for a full-committee vote. “We understand there is some concern among people. We’ll see what happens.”

Perdue selected Kansas City as the new home for ERS and NIFA on June 13 and set a schedule to complete the move by September 30, the end of the current fiscal year and before the October 1 start of fiscal 2020. Lawmakers are arguing over riders on the USDA-FDA appropriations bill for fiscal 2020. The USDA has yet to select a location in the Kansas City area for the agencies and its moving schedule has been extended.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, the senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, said the “forced relocation” of ERS and NIFA “would do irreparable harm to cutting-edge research agencies whose work the American agriculture industry relies on. I hope we can work with our colleagues in the House to do better before a final bill is signed into law.” A majority of workers at the two agencies have refused to move.

The House included its prohibition on funds for relocating ERS and NIFA on June 25 in a “minibus” bill that covered eight federal departments.

Although the Appropriations Committee is expected to approve the USDA-FDA bill, the major points of the bill are likely to be wrapped into a stopgap funding bill to keep the government running until November 21. House and Senate leaders hope to agree on a longer-running bill by then, possibly laying out spending terms for two years.

“America’s farmers desperately need MFP payments,” said Hoeven, referring to the trade-war payments created by the Trump administration. The White House has asked for an earlier-than-usual infusion into USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp to keep the payments flowing. House Appropriations chairwoman Nita Lowey circulated a draft last week of a stopgap funding bill that did not include the USDA money. Lowey reportedly agreed on Monday to provide the money but the text of the House bill was still under wraps.

“The White House is absolutely on board with us,” said Hoeven. He said he was organizing a letter to Lowey in support of the funding from Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Like the House, the Senate bill rejected large cuts proposed by President Trump in SNAP, crop insurance, conservation, and rural economic development.

For an Appropriations Committee summary of the USDA-FDA bill, click here.

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