Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in the Rose Garden at the White House in May. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A federal watchdog challenged the Trump administration’s authority to move two USDA science agencies out of Washington, in a report issued a few days after Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, praised the move for encouraging federal scientists to quit their jobs.

The plan to relocate the two agencies from the District to Kansas City may have run afoul of the 2018 appropriations act, according to a report released Monday from the USDA’s Office of Inspector General.

In August 2018, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue unveiled a plan to relocate the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which oversees $1.7 billion in scientific grants and funding, and the Economic Research Service, a federal statistical agency that publishes influential reports on agricultural trade and rural America. Both agencies lease office space in the District.

USDA selected the Kansas City region as the new home for these agencies in June 2019, in what Perdue has billed as a cost-saving decision. About two-thirds of nearly 400 employees refused the reassignment and will lose their jobs.

“This is the brain drain we all feared, possibly a destruction of the agencies,” Jack Payne, University of Florida’s vice president for agriculture and natural resources, told The Washington Post last month.

In his keynote speech at the Republican Party’s black-tie-optional Silver Elephant Gala in South Carolina on Friday, Mulvaney seemed to celebrate the attrition at the agencies. “You’ve heard about ‘drain the swamp.’ What you probably haven’t heard is what we are actually doing. I don’t know if you saw the news the other day, but the USDA just tried to move, or did move, two offices out of Washington, D.C.," he said.

As the crowd clapped, Mulvaney continued: “Yes, you can applaud that one. That’s what we’ve been talking about doing. Guess what happened? Guess what happened? More than half the people quit.

“It’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker,” Mulvaney said. “I know that because a lot of them work for me, and I’ve tried . . . By simply saying to people, ‘You know what, we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, D.C., and move you out in the real part of the country,' and they quit — what a wonderful way to sort of streamline government, and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”

Trump officials are planning additional shake-ups and exoduses from Washington. By 2020, more than 80 percent of the headquarters staff at the Bureau of Land Management will be moved west of the Rocky Mountains, the Interior Department told lawmakers in July. The Trump administration also wants to break up the Office of Personnel Management and split 5,500 workers among three other departments.

J. David Cox Sr., president of American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers at the two USDA agencies, said Mulvaney’s comments confirmed the union’s concerns. “The administration’s decision to transfer hundreds of USDA jobs from D.C. isn’t about helping federal employees do their jobs better or delivering better services to the American taxpayer,” Cox said in a statement. “Their goal is to drive out hard-working and dedicated civil servants and silence the parts of the agencies’ research that the administration views as inconvenient.” A study from ERS, for instance, one of the agencies targeted for the move, showed that a $1.5 trillion tax bill signed by Trump offered few, if any, benefits to low-income farmers.

Congress questioned whether USDA has the legal authority to move the agencies. The department has this power, according to the inspector general’s investigation. But USDA also needs budgetary approval from Congress to fund the moves, the watchdog group said, which the department did not obtain.

In the fall, USDA awarded a $340,000 contract to the accounting firm Ernst & Young to assist with the relocation. The 2018 omnibus spending bill required USDA to receive congressional approval before spending this money. “That prior approval did not appear to have been granted,” the inspector general report says.

This expense may have also violated the Antideficiency Act, the report said, which prevents federal employees from involving the government “in a contract or obligation for the payment of money before an appropriation is made.”

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D. C.), who requested the inspector general’s investigation in September 2018, exhorted USDA to follow the law. “The Secretary must follow the will of Congress and refrain from moving forward with the relocation,” they said in a joint statement Monday, “until Congress approves the use of funds for those purposes as directed by the fiscal year 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act.”

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) called the inspector general report “very troubling” said it confirms “suspicions that the secretary does not have the authority to proceed with this relocation.”

G. William Hoagland, a vice president at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center think tank, predicted that the failure to get congressional approval “will certainly set in motion legal challenges” from the union to halt the move “until either the courts or Congress act.”

In a list of recommendations in the report, the inspector general’s office advised USDA to seek approval from a congressional committee.

USDA management refused to do so. “To say the department was out of step with budgetary requirements disregards the authority given to the executive branch by the U.S. Constitution,” according to a statement provided by USDA. It continued: “Since the inspector general affirms the department has the legal authority and we do not agree with the unconstitutional budgetary provision, this case is closed.”

This report has been updated.

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