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USDA research agencies will move to Kansas City region despite opposition

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Two scientific agencies in the Department of Agriculture will move from Washington to the greater Kansas City region, USDA announced Thursday, despite strong resistance to the plan.

Nearly 550 positions at the Economic Research Service, a statistical agency, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds cutting-edge agricultural science, are expected to be moved by the end of the federal fiscal year, Sept. 30. USDA estimated the savings at $300 million over 15 years from employment and rent.

“The Kansas City Region has proven itself to be hub for all things agriculture and is a booming city in America’s heartland,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement.

The news release did not identify the location of the offices. But Tim Cowden, president and chief executive of the Kansas City Area Development Council, said the agency is evaluating office property on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border.

Perdue had unveiled a plan to relocate the two agencies in August, without specifying a site. He called the decision a cost-saving measure and said it would bring them closer to their “stakeholders” in farming regions. Initially, he also proposed placing ERS under the Office of the Chief Economist but that was not part of the final plan, according to a letter the secretary sent employees on Thursday.

Scientists across the country rely on NIFA grants to study topics ranging from climate change and crop genetics to farmland drones. ERS produces statistical reports that influence decisions in corporate boardrooms and in state and federal capitals.

Republican senators representing Missouri and Kansas welcomed Thursday’s announcement. “We’re home to some of the hardest working farmers in the country, so this is a fantastic decision by the USDA,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said in a statement.

NIFA and ERS workers will join nearly 5,000 other USDA employees in Kansas City, said Cowden, whose group proposed the region to USDA last year.

“We’re within 300 miles of 13 land grant universities,” said Kimberly Young, president of the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor, a development council initiative. The area is an epicenter of the animal health industry, Young said, with more than 300 such companies nearby.

But current employees of the two agencies, several Democratic lawmakers and a bipartisan coalition of former USDA leaders warned that the move, more than 900 miles from Washington, would devastate the two agencies.

“This is not just a change of address,” said Jack Payne, University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture. “It cuts NIFA off from the collaboration with other federal funding agencies in D.C. that are its major partners.”

NIFA unionized earlier this week, and ERS unionized in May in the face of the decision. Union officials have promised to fight the move. As Perdue addressed NIFA and ERS employees in an auditorium Thursday afternoon, members of the bargaining unit stood and turned their backs to the secretary in protest.

“The announcement today should be met with great skepticism that Secretary Perdue has the best interests of either federal employees or American agriculture in mind,” said Kevin Hunt, acting vice president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403, which represents ERS employees.

In a call with reporters Thursday afternoon, Perdue acknowledged that some employees have “expressed displeasure” with the move. “I understand that no one ever wants their cheese moved,” he said, referring to a 2000 book on business management. He suggested USDA employees who wish to remain in the District seek “other options here in federal service.”

Perdue also said the General Services Administration, the agency that manages federal real estate, will begin the process of acquiring office space around July 1.

Jeffrey Neal, a chief human resources officer in the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, said if USDA began issuing notices to employees this month the department “could pull it off by the end of the fiscal year.” Neal predicted such a swift move would be expensive — USDA estimated relocation will cost $50,000 per worker — and “messy,” losing numerous employees in the process.

Gale Buchanan, USDA chief scientist under President George W. Bush, and Catherine E. Woteki, chief scientist in the Obama administration, predicted the relocation would set ERS back “five to 10 years” due to a loss of specialized employees, as they wrote in a 2018 letter to Congress signed by dozens of agricultural leaders.

“There isn’t a plan in place for how to manage this,” Woteki told The Washington Post. The offices, which together employ about 700 people when fully staffed, are roughly two-thirds the size they were during the Obama administration.

Workloads have ballooned as ERS employees have quit at double the normal rate since October, The Post reported. Acting officials have filled several vacant ERS leadership positions.

USDA lacks a chief scientist, who oversees ERS, NIFA and other USDA research offices. Trump’s first nominee, radio host Sam Clovis, withdrew from consideration over his ties to the investigation of Russia’s influence on the 2016 election. Sen. Christopher Van Hollen (D-Md.) placed a hold on Trump’s second nominee, former Dow Chemical executive Scott Hutchins, because the senator opposes the relocation, Van Hollen’s spokeswoman said. In January, Perdue appointed Hutchins deputy undersecretary for research, education, and economics, a position that does not require Senate confirmation.

“Our overarching concern is what happens to the important scientific work that these two agencies perform at USDA on behalf of the public, on behalf of farmers and rural communities and everyone who eats,” said Karen Perry Stillerman, an analyst who specializes in food and the environment at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group that advocates for researchers.

NIFA currently rents costly offices on the Washington waterfront, and ERS leases space in the nearby Patriots Plaza. In April, Perdue announced a plan he dubbed “OneNeighborhood,” which seeks to consolidate workers into two USDA-owned buildings in the capital region. But ERS and NIFA employees slated for the move, per an April 19 memo obtained by The Post, were excluded from OneNeighborhood.

Peter Winch, an organizer for American Federation of Government Employees, said the two agencies held all-hands meetings on May 22 to discuss buyouts and severance payments. Once employees receive relocation letters, they will have 30 days to decide whether to move. USDA will offer 30 or fewer buyouts per agency, he said employees were told.

Using an internal ERS document known as the “stay-go” list, analysts at the Union of Concerned Scientists identified nearly 80 jobs scheduled to remain in Washington. The bulk belong to administrative staff, analysts who perform market outlook estimates and those who collect data. Economists and other ERS researchers who make conclusions from that data are likely to be reassigned to Kansas City, according to this analysis.

But USDA disputed that. “Of the 76 ERS positions staying in the National Capitol Region, over half of these positions perform core research functions,” USDA spokeswoman Meghan Rodgers said in an email.

Democratic lawmakers have also vowed to try to block the move. “We hope that Congress will recognize that this is legitimate executive function,” Perdue told reporters on Thursday.

A federal department must pass a “very low bar” in providing reasons for reassignments, Neal said. “The ability of Congress, with split control of the House and the Senate, to stop something like this in its tracks is questionable."

House appropriators recently prohibited funds for the move in a 2020 appropriations bill. “It is alarming that the administration is rushing ahead with this relocation in order to circumvent Congress,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a statement. Hoyer vowed “to explore all options to reverse this decision.”

Senate Democrats introduced a bill to keep the agencies in the national capital region, mirroring House legislation introduced earlier this year by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine). Van Hollen said Thursday he would offer this legislation as an amendment to the defense budget bill recently released by the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I will continue to fight this tooth and nail,” he said in a statement.

Lawmakers have also questioned whether the secretary has the authority to relocate these offices without congressional approval, prompting an investigation by the USDA’s inspector general office.

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