When Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue proposed moving both the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) out of the D.C. metro area last month, quite a few folks within the economic and research communities voiced their opposition. But now, USDA's chief economist is offering more insight on the rationale behind the idea - especially for ERS.

Perdue initially said moving the offices would improve staff recruitment and retention, save taxpayer dollars, improve efficiencies and put the organizations closer to the areas they serve. As part of the change, ERS will be aligned with the Office of the Chief Economist under the Office of the Secretary.

Unsurprisingly, many long-time staff members, supporters and stakeholders pushed back hard, and now members of Congress are asking for more information and threatening to withhold appropriations. Most of the critics have raised concerns about potential loss of experienced staff members, loss of influence within USDA and the broader research and congressional communities, and the potential for politicization of ERS.

“Relocating ERS out of the Washington Metro area would be a disaster,” wrote John Lee Jr., who served as ERS Administrator from 1981-1993, in a note to fellow economists. Lee said ERS has long “focused on broad national and international issues of importance to national political and other decision-makers. Many of these are in D.C. and depend on ERS for objective information.” He fears that “if ERS is ‘out of sight and out of mind,’ those linkages could wither.”

It’s not the first time that ERS – originally created in 1922 as the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BEA) in USDA – has undergone structural changes. In 1997, ERS leaders asked the Committee on National Statistics of the National Research Council to look at its management and structure. The panel’s 176-page report, “Sowing Seeds of Change: Informing Public Policy in the Economic Research Service of USDA," set the stage for some of the issues that Perdue says he will address – more than 20 years later.

“ERS was the dominant employer of agricultural economists with limited alternative career prospects, today ERS must compete to recruit and retain a much broader array of professionals, most of whom have many attractive alternatives,” the report's authors noted. ”All of these factors, combined in a fractious political environment, have led to a widespread perception that the quantity and quality of ERS products are not what they should be, the reduced staff and budget of ERS perhaps notwithstanding."

While the report did not propose relocation, it did advocate for “different methods for procuring the research and information that supports public policy” such as outsourcing to land grant universities and various public-private partnerships.

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The report also cited concerns about the lines of authority. Currently, the ERS administrator reports to a political appointee, the Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE), along with administrators of three much larger agencies: The Agricultural Research Service, the National Agricultural Statistical Service and the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (now NIFA).

“Research and information in support of economic policy within USDA are not well served by these lines of authority,” the report noted. “The administrator of ERS, with responsibility for over 300 professional employees (at the time the report was written), is several steps removed from the policy process to which the work of ERS must be relevant."

USDA Chief Economist Rob Johansson says the realignment currently being proposed would better serve decision-making within the department.

Rob Johansson

USDA Chief Economist Rob Johansson

“I came from ERS, I respect ERS researchers and I would like to leverage their expertise and answer a lot of the questions that we’re dealing with at the department,” he told Agri-Pulse. “ERS is going to continue to function as a statistical agency as they did before.”

Johansson said traditionally, ERS played a key role in the World Agricultural Outlook Board process of estimating supply and demand every month – along with several other agencies. But over time, input from ERS has “sort of been faltering” and “losing a lot of key employees” who haven’t been replaced. “I’d like to turn that around and strengthen again,” he added.

But the task won’t be easy in D.C., because it’s been more difficult to recruit economists who want to work for the federal government within the Beltway. He cited government-wide Office of Personnel Management reports indicating that the need for higher pay, more interesting research opportunities and better work/life balance are the top three reasons that economists leave the federal government.

Johanson said ERS has had attrition higher than other parts of USDA and certainly higher among hires that have less than five years of service. “So, the newer economists that are getting hired are leaving more quickly than other new employees at USDA,” he explains.

He describes criticism about the possibility of making ERS more political as “one of the more curious of arguments.

“Essentially, that says a career ERS administrator who reports to a political undersecretary who reports to the secretary is less political than a career ERS administrator reporting to a career chief economist who reports to the secretary.”

He said OCE is a not a “political office,” noting that OCE oversees offices for pesticide management, risk management, energy policy, environmental markets and climate change.

“Those are all providing information to – not just the secretary – but also helping to coordinate research across the department on those issues and putting them out in a number of unbiased, non-political reports,” he adds. “Just the fact that we’ve maintained a climate change program office throughout the years is certainly one testament” to OCE’s objectivity.

Johansson said that, “whatever the locational selection is, there’s going to be a key component of ERS that remains in D.C. to provide an interface within USDA and with members of Congress." But he declined to say how many of the approximately 300 current staff members would be able to stay. The Federal Register notice calls for a new location to house 260 ERS employees.

Whether USDA will be able to continue with realignment and reallocation of staff remains to be seen. Many have noted that President Trump’s FY19 budget proposed cutting the ERS budget and staff in half and focusing its work on farm production issues. They believe that's really the administration's end game. Congressional critics of the plan have raised the prospect of using the appropriations measures to at least delay the plan.

For former Administrator Lee, he hopes lawmakers and USDA officials look more deeply into the history of the agency before making any decisions. He says the BAE (Bureau of Agricultural Economics) which did the work now done by both ERS and NASS, was a large and respected agency until it was moved directly under the Secretary in either late 1930s or early 1940s.

"That put it too close to political activity and generated unhappiness with powerful members of Congress," Lee recalled. "The BAE was abolished in 1947, and its work scattered among other agencies. That lesson was not forgotten for a long time, but there is little institutional memory among today’s actors."

USDA employees are located across the U.S.

ERS graphic

This map shows the breakdown of USDA employees by state. Source: USDA

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