ASA Applauds Appropriators’ Statements About ERS Move

Congressional appropriators from the United States Senate and House of Representatives late last month issued explanatory statements about the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) controversial plan to relocate large portions of the Economic Research Service (ERS)—a principal federal statistical agency—and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) outside the nation’s capital.

The statements, while not finalized in FY19 discretionary appropriations, signal bipartisan concern about the proposal’s “unknown costs” and further ask for a “detailed analysis” of potential research benefits in the president’s annual budget request.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s proposal would also organizationally realign ERS within the department, shifting the agency with an $80 million budget from the USDA’s research arm to the Office of the Chief Economist. Appropriators, however, rebuffed that idea as well by supporting “an indefinite delay in the proposed transfer of ERS to the Office of the Chief Economist.”

Since 1994, the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education, and Economics, who is also USDA’s chief scientist, has managed ERS; before then, it was controlled by the assistant secretary for economics, a position thought to be different in scope than the chief economist, whose capacity as an adviser to the secretary on “economic implications of policies” stokes worry that the realignment would jeopardize ERS’ stance as an objective, policy-neutral principal federal statistical agency.

As part of its advocacy for evidence-based policymaking and the vital role of federal statistical agencies in it, the American Statistical Association applauds congressional appropriators for their language and urges its inclusion in the final FY19 appropriations bill. If enacted, the USDA could still proceed with both the realignment and relocation because the language is considered nonbinding. Nevertheless, the language is an encouraging development, and the ASA will continue to work to keep the two agencies strong and, for ERS, independent.

Perdue first announced the proposal in an August press release, indicating it would save taxpayer money, connect the USDA with stakeholders, improve the department’s ability to attract and retain talented staff, and generally promote “effective economic analysis.” The announcement shocked stakeholders across the federal statistics and agricultural research communities and caught congressional appropriators off guard, who months earlier rejected the president’s FY19 budget request that sought to cut ERS’ funding by nearly $40 million.

Since August, opposition to the secretary’s proposal has been swift; more than 1,000 individual scientists across the country, 60 scientific societies, 56 former USDA and federal statistical agency leaders, and 48 vice presidents and deans of agriculture at land-grant universities—among them three former USDA chief scientists from Republican and Democratic administrations—have expressed profound concern to congressional authorizers and appropriators. Katherine Wallman, chief statistician of the United States from 1992–2017, previously stated the proposal represented the “biggest threat to a federal statistical agency in many years.”

In turn, the American Statistical Association Board of Directors issued a rare statement regarding the USDA’s rationale for the proposal:

The American Statistical Association (ASA) Board of Directors is deeply concerned by USDA’s August 2018 announcement that it would be relocating the majority of ERS’s staff outside Washington, DC, and realigning ERS from the USDA Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area to the USDA Office of the Chief Economist (OCE) in the secretary’s office. As an ASA document released earlier in November states, USDA’s rationale is “generally found to be lacking in substance or evidence, or needing additional and independent study” and it is unclear what problems the USDA seeks to address. USDA’s process is also troubling for its lack of consultation with stakeholders, Congress, and ERS experts prior to this decision; seeming disregard for concerns voiced after its decision; and the speed with which the department seeks to act.

Secretary Perdue stated he will provide lawmakers with a cost-benefit analysis, but in the meantime plans for the relocation are moving forward despite appropriators’ concerns, the USDA’s internal regulations outlining requisite steps of organizational change, and an ongoing investigation by the department’s inspector general. Using selection criteria such as “access to health care” and “travel time to / from DC,” officials are reviewing 136 potential locations to host the agencies with plans to complete the move by the end of December 2019, an expeditious timeline that risks an impasse between the secretary and congressional lawmakers overseeing discretionary spending and departmental reprogramming requests.