A USDA senior adviser acknowledged “missed opportunities to engage stakeholders” on the department’s plan to move the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture outside the Washington, D.C., area, but said the relocations would benefit both employees and taxpayers.

At a hearing held by the House Appropriations Committee’s agriculture subcommittee Wednesday, Kristi Boswell (pictured above) said taxpayers would benefit because USDA would save money on rent by moving to locations outside of Washington, D.C. She also said the lives of ERS and NIFA employees would be improved by shorter commute times and cheaper housing prices.

Boswell faced skeptical questions from congressional critics of the proposal. Subcommittee Chairman Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., said he was concerned by the way the proposal has been handled “and the lack of clear, transparent communication with ERS and NIFA employees has already done irreversible damage to the department’s reputation.”

A panel of two former ERS administrators and two former USDA chief scientists said they knew of no good reason for moving the agencies and warned the subcommittee about long-term impacts.

Catherine Woteki, who served as chief scientist from 2010-2016, said the agencies have “lost experienced, well trained staff” since the moves were announced.

“This proposal will actually lower pay and make it more difficult to recruit a talented workforce," she said.

John Lee, who worked at ERS for 32 years, including a 12-year stint as administrator, said, “I think the very existence of ERS could be under threat.

“Top researchers are being hired way,” he said, warning “further draconian cuts … could be the beginning of the agency’s demise.”

The president’s fiscal 2020 budget calls for a cut in the ERS workforce from 330 to 160 and a reduction in the agency’s budget from $86.8 million to $60.5 million.

Boswell, however, said there is no “reduction in force” and said Perdue had recently authorized hiring 60 ERS employees. After the hearing, she did not elaborate when asked about the proposed halving of ERS staff.

Speaking to the subcommittee, she said she was “aware that there is concern regarding attrition of our current employees. We cannot reiterate enough how much we value ERS and NIFA employees and the work that they do.” She said USDA is “monitoring closely” the loss of employees “to ensure we are delivering our mission.”

Boswell did not respond to questions from reporters about how many employees have left ERS since the relocation proposal was announced in August. 

Boswell said Ernst & Young, a firm contracted to handle the search for a new location or locations, will be conducting a complete cost-benefit analysis to be used when it presents a site recommendation. Congress asked for a cost-benefit analysis in the fiscal 2019 omnibus budget report.

USDA initially received 136 “expressions of interest” from various entities, including universities and economic development agencies, in October. Earlier this month, the department said it had whittled that down to 67, and Boswell said the department would be narrowing that list further “in the coming days” with an eye toward a final site recommendation in early May.

USDA had hoped to at least begin the relocation this year, but given congressional opposition and the government shutdown, it’s questionable whether that will happen. Boswell did not offer a potential date, instead saying that the department plans for a “rolling transition of staff to the new location along with focused hiring to fill any vacated essential positions at the new location to ensure as little disruption as possible.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, questioned how moving the agencies to, say, Nebraska, would benefit Maine producers, for whom Washington, D.C., would be more convenient. She also criticized the process for a lack of transparency.

“We haven’t been able to access a lot of information, such as how many people have left,” she told Boswell.

The hearing came the same day House Republicans released a letter signed by 30 members who support the proposed relocations.

“We believe relocating ERS and NIFA would build upon USDA’s capacity and improve the agency’s ability to recruit top talent from universities across the nation while being closer to rural America and reducing taxpayer expenditures,” they said in a letter to Bishop and Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., ranking member of the subcommittee.

Fortenberry spoke in favor of the proposal at the hearing, while reminding Boswell that USDA needs to do more to convince Democrats of the wisdom of the relocation.

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., who represents his state’s Eastern Shore, also supported the proposal but expressed disappointment that his area was not represented in the latest list of locations under consideration. Two expressions of interest from Maryland that made the cut are the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation and University of Maryland at College Park.

“You don’t see corn growing in College Park,” he said.

“Our rural communities really do need the economic boost from having a government agency, especially one that serves the rural community,” he said.

Boswell said relocating ERS and NIFA outside of the Washington area would allow researchers “to be agile to address upcoming issues that will rise to the national level. USDA will have the ability to be more agile to respond to issues like farmer stress and mental health, organic research and extension development, and rural prosperity and hardship by relocating.”

The president’s fiscal 2020 budget would cut $4 million for research on the rural economy and rural well-being. “ERS will discontinue all research and statistics related to the rural economy,” the department's explanatory notes on the budget proposal say, but rural economy research will be supported through NIFA and USDA's Agricultural Research Service. 

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