Campaign to Protect USDA Research and Statistics Continues in New Congress

March has been a busy month in the campaign to protect the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the two agencies the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has designated for relocation outside Washington, DC.

The Trump administration just released its request for the FY20 budget, revealing its desire to cut the ERS program budget by 50%, while budgeting $15.5 million for ERS’s relocation. The newly released documents detail USDA plans to cut research and analysis for the following areas:

  1. Farm, conservation, and trade policy
  2. Food assistance, nutrition, and diet quality
  3. Rural economy and well-being
  4. Food safety

Also in March, USDA narrowed the list of potential sites to host ERS and NIFA to 67 locations from 135 and informed staff which positions will stay in Washington, DC, and which will be relocated. The 136 expressions of interest originally came from 35 states, but that number dropped to 27 after bids from California, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming were recently eliminated. USDA’s criteria for narrowing the potential sites remain ambiguous. In California—the nation’s largest agricultural producer—zero bids remain to host the agencies, whereas an unknown private citizen in Hanover Township, Pennsylvania, made the cut.

The administration moves follow Congress’s February action to slow down USDA’s plans through nonbinding language accompanying the FY19 spending bills finalized in February. The language specifically directs USDA to “include all cost estimates for the proposed move of the two agencies, as well as a detailed analysis of any research benefits of their relocation” as part of their FY20 budget submission. The language also states congressional “support [for] an indefinite delay in the proposed transfer of ERS to the Office of the Chief Economist,” which was the second component of the USDA two-part restructuring announced in August 2018.

House Democrats also reintroduced the Agricultural Research Integrity Act in February, a one-page bill that would keep the four agencies currently in the USDA Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area in REE with an additional requirement that the majority of each of the four REE agencies’ staff be kept in the national capital region. While unlikely to become law, the bill sends a powerful signal to USDA, as its 13 cosponsors include Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Sanford Bishop (D-GA), Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern (D-MA), and many members of the agricultural appropriations subcommittee.

On the stakeholder side, advocates are urging appropriators to include bill language—which, in contrast to report language, is binding by nature—prohibiting USDA from using funds for their restructuring of REE. Stakeholders also continue to raise awareness for their concerns and opposition through meetings with congressional staff and outreach to the greater agriculture research and analysis community and to the media.

Looking ahead, USDA is expected to provide a cost-benefit analysis for the proposed relocations. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue previously promised such an analysis, but this month’s report language also directs him to do so. Critics of the move cite the lack of a cost-benefit analysis as another reason the USDA process lacks justification and integrity. USDA is also expected in the coming months to further narrow the list of sites to host the agencies.

A USDA inspector general report in response to a September request from Leader Hoyer and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is due out soon. A recent news article says the report will “focus on whether the department has legal or budgetary authority to relocate the research agencies, and whether it followed proper procedures.”

Congress will also be ramping up its scrutiny of the proposed relocations and reorganization through both hearings and the marking up of its FY20 appropriations bill later this spring.

Readers can help protect ERS and NIFA by communicating to their congressional delegation their opposition to the moves. For general guidance, see the Action Center section at the bottom of the  ASA Science Policy and Advocacy webpage. In addition, through March 25, individuals can sign this letter to appropriators and organizations can sign this letter.

As part of its advocacy for evidence-based policymaking, the ASA has been vocal and active in its opposition to the USDA moves. As former Chief Statistician of the United States and former ASA President  Katherine Wallman stated, “The USDA’s dismantling of the Economic Research Service is the biggest threat to a federal statistical agency in many years.” The ASA science policy staff has been coordinating with the greater agricultural and food research and analysis community, conducting Hill meetings, organizing letters, and expanding awareness of the moves.

More ASA coverage of the USDA REE moves: