A House-Senate agreement on USDA’s fiscal 2019 budget includes nonbinding language that raises concerns about the cost of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan to move the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of the nation’s capital. 

The report that accompanies the spending bill directs Perdue to provide estimates of the costs and benefits of the plan and to “delay indefinitely” his plan to pull ERS out from under the undersecretary for research, education and economics and put it in the Office of Chief Economist, part of the secretary’s office. 

The conference agreement, which includes six bills that would fund the array of departments and agencies in addition to USDA, FDA and EPA, was negotiated but never enacted in time to avoid the current shutdown. 

House Democrats released the bills on Thursday in their latest tactic to pressure Republicans to end the shutdown. They previously forced votes on the Senate-passed versions of the bills. Senate Republicans are refusing to take up any such legislation until Democrats reach a deal with President Donald Trump on his demands to fund a border wall.

“We should pass this bill, reopen the government, and pay our federal employees,” said House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. “After we do that, we can have robust negotiations on border security and immigration policy.”

The House-Senate agreement stops short of actually blocking Perdue from carrying out the relocation of NIFA and ERS, a priority for the new chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga. 

But the conference committee report that accompanies the bill says there is “concern about the unknown costs associated with the proposed move.” 

USDA “is directed 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. There is an expectation that this process will be followed in the future for any other potential proposed agency relocations.”

In justifying its demand that Perdue keep ERS under its existing oversight, the report says, "Insufficient information and justification relating to the reorganization and relocation make moving forward on these proposals premature at this time."

A critic of the plan, Ferd Hoefner, senior strategic adviser to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, welcomed the report language. "We are delighted and thank the agricultural appropriators for calling the administration to task over their unilateral proposal to weaken agricultural research and politicize economic analysis," he said.

Perdue argues that moving the agencies from the Washington area will save money and make it easier for ERS to recruit economists. 

The plan "has generated great enthusiasm around the country, as 136 parties in 35 states have formally expressed interest in hosting the agencies. USDA is undertaking the relocations for a variety of reasons," said USDA spokesman Tim Murtaugh. 

He said that moving ERS under the Office of Chief Economist "simply makes sense because the two have similar missions. ERS studies and anticipates trends and emerging issues, while OCE advises the Secretary and Congress on the economic implications of policies and programs. These two agencies were aligned once before, and bringing them back together will enhance the effectiveness of economic analysis at USDA."

The spending bill itself includes an additional $550 million to fund a rural broadband loan and grant program created by Congress with $600 million in 2018. 

The bill would continue bans on the slaughter of horses and on the use of chicken imported from China in the school lunch program.

The House will vote on the package of bills next week but there has been no sign of a breakthrough in the border wall impasse. 

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