Today, the USDA will receive the last expressions of interests from states hoping to become the new home for the Economic Research Service, currently located in Washington, DC. The process however should be halted pending an independent assessment of the rationale for and the potential consequences of realignment and relocation of ERS. Too much is at stake for the US agriculture, food, and rural economy to take the drastic actions the USDA proposes without such an assessment.

The 330 employees of the Economic Research Service produce analyses and data relating to farming and the food supply, natural resources, rural economies, farm income, trade, and nutrition. Their work is of such quality that the Economic Research Service is ranked No. 3 in the world for agricultural economics. Economic Research Service reports are used by, and their experts consulted by, Congress, other parts of USDA, reporters, and public and private-sector policymakers throughout the food, agriculture and rural economies. Given their central importance to informing evidence-based policy making in our $1 trillion dollar food and agricultural sector, their $86 million dollar annual budget is taxpayer money well spent.

The Economic Research Service has experienced both more and less political support for its independent economic research over the agency’s 96 years of existence. What makes this latest swing of the pendulum so problematic is the likelihood that relocation will decimate the agency’s ranks, as many skilled and experienced economists opt not to go along.  The presence of the Economic Research Service in the capital is also crucial to keeping its research relevant to national policy and in touch with its key constituents in the Department itself, on the Hill, and in public and private interest groups. Moreover, the move would jeopardize the Economic Research Service’s collaboration with its counterpart principal Federal statistical agencies, which include USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and eight others.  All of these are headquartered in Washington DC and overseen by the Chief Statistician at the Office of Management and Budget.

The USDA made its surprise move In the midst of the summer doldrums, starting with the abrupt reassignment of the career civil servant at the agency’s head. Immediately afterward, Secretary Sonny Perdue wrote in a one page memo that the Economic Research Service would be absorbed into his office and that almost all the agency’s staff would be physically relocated. These moves were not previously discussed with the Congress or those in the public and private sectors who use and rely on the agency’s work.  Subsequently, the Department has moved with uncharacteristic speed to implement its plan since it was announced in mid-August.

The August pronouncement comes on the heels of the Administration’s February budget proposal to cut the agency’s funding in half, which would eliminate most of the agency’s analyses on policy topics in food and nutrition, the environment, and rural development. Although Congress appears ready to reject that plan, the relocation could very well achieve what the spring budget proposal did not.  There is no certainty that a shrunken agency placed outside Washington could overcome budget pressures and re-expand and also that it could replace the seasoned analysts it leaves behind. 

The Department’s justification for the changes hinges on assertions of cost savings and improved customer service, but little evidence has been offered in support.  At present, public dialogue between the Department and its concerned stakeholders unfolds in sequential statements in the press, each side talking past the other. 

When it comes to the use of public funds, before any commitments to states are made or any move of the agency to the Secretary’s office takes place, Congress should mandate an objective and independent assessment of the USDA plan. The evaluation should be performed by an objective, independent entity such as the US Government Accountability Office or the National Academy of Public Administration.

Good government and the need for evidence-based policy demand no less. 

About the author: Susan Offutt was administrator of the Economic Research Service under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.