Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last month finalized plans to move about 550 jobs at two scientific agencies in the Agriculture Department from Southwest Washington to the greater Kansas City region.
In a separate move, the administration has threatened to furlough and possibly lay off 150 workers at the Office of Personnel Management, the federal workforce’s human resources agency, if Congress blocks the administration’s plans to eliminate the department.
Proponents of the changes say they want to streamline operations, save taxpayer money, spread the economic effects of federal jobs beyond the nation’s capital and bring workers closer to the people they serve.
Opponents of the USDA’s move, including Democratic lawmakers and unions representing federal workers, say the agencies will hemorrhage talent because many scientists and researchers would rather quit than move their families 1,000 miles from the District.
Capital region lawmakers say both of the administration’s proposals are part of a long-standing Republican campaign, bolstered by President Trump, to paint federal workers as unnecessary bureaucrats.
“In the White House, there is, among some people, a real disrespect for federal employees, animated by their disrespect for the government generally,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), whose district includes part of Prince George’s County, said in a brief interview. “So if you’re hostile to government, you’re then . . . hostile to those who work in government.”
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who represents most of Fairfax and Prince William counties, said an “unrelenting assault” on benefits, compensation, hiring, workers’ rights, workplace conditions and appellate rights started when Republicans took control of Congress in 2011.
“The Republicans, and especially the Trump administration, view the entire federal enterprise, federal workers, as part of the swamp, and anything they can do to diminish it, demean it, from their point of view is a good thing,” Connolly said.
He pointed to a March 2017 resolution spearheaded by Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah, then the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, that would have deemed it unnecessary for federal agencies to be located in the District. The measure, called Divest D.C., advanced to the full House but never got a floor vote.
Current efforts appear to be moving ahead unabated, raising concerns among federal workers that the administration could try to replicate the plans across government.
“It seems like if they are successful here, this could just be the tip of the iceberg,” said Sandra Salstrom, a lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees, a union for federal workers. “We don’t know who’s next.”
Connolly is chairman of the House Oversight Committee’s panel on government operations, which in May held a three-hour hearing titled “The Administration’s War on a Merit Based Civil Service.”
The hearing focused on the administration’s plans to move most Office of Personnel Management functions into the General Services Administration, the government’s real estate and procurement arm. The plan also would shift leadership to the executive branch, raising worries that the agency could become politicized.
The OPM-GSA merger was the subject of a rally last week organized by federal worker unions across from the current OPM headquarters.
In addition to Connolly and Hoyer, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the District’s nonvoting delegate, took turns at the microphone in the shadow of a statue of Argentine independence hero José de San Martín.
Plans to move the USDA agencies — the Economic Research Service, a statistical agency, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds cutting-edge agricultural science — to Kansas City intensified Democrats’ frustration.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) of Montgomery County has tried to stop the USDA move through a bill and an amendment, and he sits on a committee that could block the leases on new office space if the contracts exceed a certain threshold.
He suggested the move was part of an ongoing effort by the administration to suppress scientific data on climate change.
“I will use every tool I have on both the Appropriations Committee and the Environment and Public Works Committee to block this move,” he said in a statement.
The USDA Office of Inspector General began a review of the relocation in November at the request of Norton and Hoyer. The report is under review by the agency before its release to Congress and the public.
Kevin Hunt, a geographer and head of his union bargaining unit at the Economic Research Service, is a Missouri native but does not plan to move.
He said he is sad to leave what he considers a “dream job” that allows him to do research and publish in scientific journals, pays well and has promotion potential. His partner has a good job elsewhere, making it difficult to move.
Hunt said he believes the agency belongs in the District, where collaboration with other agencies is seamless.
“It’s not about Kansas City,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s about moving people who are established here and who are at the top of their game.”
Lawmakers have inserted language into multiple appropriations bills to block the administration from spending money to move workers in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
However, the changes are on track to begin before the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30, which prompted Norton to suggest litigation as a next step. The basis for a legal challenge is unclear.
“I’ve got to be absolutely candid with you,” she told workers at the rally. “I am going to ask you to go into court. . . . I’m standing here this afternoon to say, ‘If we don’t beat them, I am sure that you will beat them. Keep fighting. We are there with you!’”
She added in an interview: “I think we have done everything we can do. We’re racing against the clock.”
Asked about litigation, an AFGE spokesman said they are pursuing collective bargaining to block or delay the moves.
Ben Guarino and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.