House Democrats try to block Trump’s USDA from relocating its independent research agency

The highly contentious proposed reorganization could significantly reduce ERS's impact and political independence.

House Democrats want to block the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) from making contentious changes at the Economic Research Service (ERS), an independent arm of the agency that’s responsible for providing politicians and the public with economic information on agriculture, food, the environment, and rural development.

In August, USDA announced that it would relocate the ERS away from Washington, D.C. and nestle it under the Office of the Chief Economist (OCE). The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which funds agricultural research at land-grant universities, would be similarly affected as part of the move. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue defended the decision as a cost-cutting measure and one that would bring the agencies closer to rural communities.

However, many, including ERS’s own staff and former USDA officials, saw the reorganization as an underhanded effort to create some literal distance between the findings of the service, which have at times been at odds with the publicly stated stances of the Trump White House—particularly on climate change—and Capitol Hill.

“Uprooting these key agencies is absolutely unnecessary and risks weakening them when our nation’s food system.”

In 1994, the ERS was separated from the OCE, which advises the Secretary of Agriculture on the economic impacts of policy, and placed under the USDA’s research, education, and economics (REE) arm. Former officials are concerned that undoing this structure could lead to politicization of ERS’s work.

“We believe the relocation will set back the agency for 5-10 years and undermine its independence as a federal statistical agency,” wrote a coalition of officials in the agricultural community—including former USDA Chief Scientists Gale Buchanan and Catherine E. Woteki—on Friday. They urged legislators in the House and Senate to intervene.

Since Perdue’s announcement in August, USDA has received 136 expressions of interest from parties who say they would be more than happy to host ERS and NIFA offices going forward. As we reported at the time, the list revealed a mix of public and private groups, including land-grant universities, chambers of commerce, economic development coalitions, and commercial real estate developers like Newmark Knight Frank and Cushman & Wakefield.

Though, moving the ERS from the Beltway could also result in a loss of critical staff and proximity to the very decision-makers that ERS research is meant to inform.

But not if Congressperson Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine with a lengthy food and agriculture policy record, can help it. Pingree on Thursday introduced a bill that would keep ERS and NIFA right where they are.

“Relocation will set back the agency for 5-10 years.”

“Uprooting these key agencies is absolutely unnecessary and risks weakening them when our nation’s food system and agricultural economy need them most,” Pingree said in the press release announcing the bill, which is co-sponsored by nine other Democratic representatives from across the nation, including Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. of Georgia, Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., and Jimmy Panetta of California.

The bill, if passed, would codify ERS and NIFA’s place within REE and keep the agencies in the D.C. area.

The bill is likely to pass in the House, which the Democrats will control next month. What goes down in the Senate is much more of a toss-up. Save for the bill’s passage, USDA’s move will begin late 2019.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.