USDA’s relocation plan may have broken the law

The department’s internal watchdog finds it needed Congressional approval first.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) may have broken the law by relocating two Beltway research agencies to the Kansas City area without getting Congressional approval first, according to a new government inspection report.

The long-awaited report, conducted by the department’s international watchdog, the Office of Inspector General (OIG), found that USDA didn’t have the authority to move the agencies without working with Congress. Department officials had the legal authority to relocate the agencies, but not the budgetary authority, the report found.

The review was launched in November, in response to a request from Democratic lawmakers who felt USDA hadn’t adequately explained why it ordered the relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS), a highly respected, independent research agency, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which manages over $1.5 billion in farm research grants.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has said the move is needed to cut costs, retain staff, and bring the agency closer to farmers and agriculture business. Those justifications have been widely rejected by Democratic lawmakers and staff at the two agencies, who generally believe the decision was politically motivated, and an attempt to minimize research that counters the Trump administration’s agenda.

Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s chief of staff, boasted at a South Carolina Republican party event that the move was “a wonderful way” to get rid of federal workers.
Some of the department’s missteps emerged from provisions in last year’s omnibus spending bill. As part of the review, the watchdog found that the department had awarded around $339,000 in appropriations funds to Ernst & Young, in order to review bids from local governments, universities, and business coalitions that wanted to be the agencies’ new home. A section of the bill requires USDA to receive Congressional approval before “reprogramming” that money for relocation. The department did not appear to have done that, the review found. 

The inspectors also said USDA hadn’t met a 60-day timeframe set by Congress to submit a report on how it intended to use funds from a $6 million fund for the NIFA relocation. The department notified Congress 139 days after the deadline, on August 9, 2018. 

That failure “may have” violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the government from entering into contracts before an appropriation is made. As part of the review, the inspector general recommended that USDA work with Congress before using additional funds for the relocation.

USDA appears to have rejected those recommendations. In a July memo, Stephen Vaden, the department’s general counsel, said the budget provisions for Congressional approval were unconstitutional. 

Nevertheless, Democratic lawmakers seemed vindicated by the findings. Representatives Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Eleanor Holmes Norton of Delaware, both of whom criticized the move in a July letter, urged Perdue to work with Congress, and halt the relocation until Congress approved the funds. “USDA must follow the law, period,” they said in a statement. “It ought not to change interpretations when it is convenient for the Administration or the Secretary at any given moment.”

Perdue’s insistence that the move is financially beneficial, and intended to help farming communities, isn’t contested only by Democrats. On Friday, Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s chief of staff, boasted at a South Carolina Republican party event that the move was “a wonderful way” to get rid of federal workers, casting the ag secretary’s claims in doubt. 

“More than half the people quit,” Mulvaney said, after the relocation was announced. “Simply saying to the people, ‘you know what, we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven and move you out into the real part of the country,’ and they quit. What a wonderful way to streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”

“There is just a general sense of defeat.”
The comments were swiftly condemned by the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents the two agencies. Last month, the union released a memo finding that more than 80 percent of ERS workers, and 90 percent of NIFA workers, would decline their relocation, leaving the two research agencies depleted by September 30. 

Scientists and research advocates warn of a brain drain that will take years to recover from. According to The Washington Post, ERS economists who study pollination, trade and international development, and farm finance, have left the agency in droves. The team of economists that monitor organic markets are also gone, according to Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat, speaking during a contentious agriculture committee hearing in July. 

Similarly, at NIFA, processors are facing a growing pile of grant applications, and program specialists are looking towards a future where research is conducted without departmental leadership. One employee, who wished to remain anonymous, told The New Food Economy that the agency may be forced to rely on contractors, or experts from private industry, to manage peer-review research panels after it relocates to Kansas City.

“There is just a general sense of defeat. Between the OIG report and Mulvaney’s remarks, it is incredibly disheartening to know that this administration can sidestep laws in order to disrupt research,” an ERS economist told The New Food Economy. “Will there be any ramifications? Probably not. The damage is done.”

Employees are losing hope in another Congressional effort to force the agencies to stay in Washington through the appropriations process. As we reported, the department’s plan to relocate employees by September 30 allows it to sidestep the possibility for Congress to block that move through its annual appropriations bill, which would take effect the next day, on October 1. The House’s agricultural appropriations bill, which passed earlier this summer, has a provision to block the relocation. That isn’t likely to appear in a version from the Republican-controlled Senate.

Relocation is already underway, with hundreds of employees set to be working in a temporary office in Kansas City by the time Congress ends its summer recess next month. USDA has not yet selected permanent offices for its newly relocated agencies.

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Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.