This office, once full of life, sits nearly empty because Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue decided that two of USDA’s research agencies would be moved out of Washington on only three months’ notice. My agency, the Economic Research Service, is an institution that publishes data and research about U.S. agriculture, some of it politically inconvenient. If an agency starts to publish data that is unflattering to the administration, you can’t close the agency or slash its funding because members of Congress from both parties count on its scientific analysis. You can’t fire federal workers for doing their jobs. So you transfer them, on short notice, 1,000 miles away, and they all leave the government in droves. That’s exactly what Perdue did, costing taxpayers as much as $215 million dollars of lost research.
During one of many farewell parties for departing staff, people shared stories of how they came to work for USDA. One woman tearfully recalled how, as an Army veteran living in the heartland, she was rebounding from a series of setbacks and got the news that the federal government needed her specialized skills in Washington. She found a second family and a new beginning at ERS. Another woman, hailing from Ohio, recounted her story of how she answered an ad in Jet magazine for entry-level federal work in Washington. She was regularly promoted, joining the ranks of dedicated civil servants who keep federal offices functioning, in service of the American people.
For these women and many of their colleagues, the move is shattering. One former employee with multiple sclerosis was forced to relocate, leaving behind their network of doctors. New parents juggled caring for an infant with an unplanned move. The community that supported others, including me, through medical hardships and other struggles, has been fragmented by the abrupt transition.
We were told to uproot our entire lives, allegedly so we could “be closer to farmers.” But there are plenty of farmers here in the D.C. area. One ERS economist was forced to liquidate a working farm in Maryland, an entire life’s work, as a result of this move. The public transportation network in Washington allows workers to take commuter trains in daily from the rural areas that define the landscapes of Virginia and Maryland.
Washington attracts workers from all over the United States, allowing rural America a seat at the table. We are the people of rural America, residing in and around Washington.
USDA brags about the Economic Research Service being a crown jewel of the department and a world-class research organization. But ERS is nothing without its people. Of all the highly qualified scientists, researchers and support staff with specialized jobs working at the top of their field, Perdue told 200 of them that they could move to Kansas City immediately or lose their jobs.
On Sept. 30, the report date ordered by Perdue, only 16 people from ERS relocated to Kansas City. As for the rest, most didn’t quit being civil servants — they simply took new federal jobs. Around 80 found jobs elsewhere in government, in places such as the State Department, the Pentagon, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census Bureau and the Department of Veterans Affairs — places that value the kind of talent that the USDA spent decades nurturing. Of my remaining colleagues, nine took jobs in academia, and nine were lost to the private sector. More than 50 of those who would have been required to move were instead forced into early retirement.
Perdue did not move the Economic Research Service to Kansas City. He gutted it. ERS leadership remains in Washington, as do the employees handling congressionally mandated reports, including myself. Three quarters of the workforce were told to uproot and go to Kansas City so swiftly that there was no time for an orderly transfer of missions and research. There are stacks of reports and research completed with no staff left to publish the results. Data sets are abandoned, and a generation of scientific expertise extinguished.
If Perdue should ever work up the nerve to actually visit ERS, we’ll still be here. We might be smaller, but we’re still putting out nonpartisan scientific and economic data. Even though working as a government researcher has become difficult under Perdue, we still intend to do our jobs. The public needs science, and despite all his efforts to remove us, we will keep working for the public good.