The Agriculture Department is moving nearly all its researchers into the economic effects of climate change, trade policy and food stamps – subjects of controversial Trump administration initiatives – outside of Washington, part of what employees claim is a political crackdown on economists whose assessments have raised questions about the president’s policies.
Since last year, employees in the department’s Economic Research Service have awaited news of which members of their agency would be forced to relocate, after Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue stunned them by declaring he was moving most of the agency to a location outside the capital. The announcement sparked claims that Perdue was trying to pressure economists into leaving the agency rather than move their families.
On March 5, the department began notifying people who were allowed to stay in Washington, but didn’t provide a comprehensive list, only telling employees in person if they made the cut.
But current and former employees compiled one anyway, covering all 279 people on staff, 76 of whom are being allowed to stay in Washington.
The current and former employees, all of whom requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, say the specialties of those who are being asked to move corresponds closely to the areas where economic assessments often clash with the president’s policies, including tax policies, climate change, and the farm economy. The list, shared exclusively with POLITICO, shows a clear emphasis was placed on keeping employees whose work covers relatively non-controversial issues like crop planting over those whose research focused on areas sensitive to the administration.
“This was a clear politicization of the agency many of us loved for its non-partisan research and analysis,” a current ERS employee told POLITICO, claiming that department leaders picked those whose work was more likely to offend the administration and forced them to move “out or quit.”
A former researcher who left last month in anticipation of being moved put it this way: “You can draw the conclusion that these are the less valued activities that are undertaken by ERS. They view ERS as being useful in that it produces data and statistics that can inform policy but the research that’s done by the economists and geographers and statisticians at ERS is less valuable and that they’re not concerned with a significant deterioration in ERS’ ability to do research.”
A USDA spokesman declined to directly address the employees’ allegation of political bias, but provided a written statement from Perdue saying that the moves were not prompted by the work being done by ERS
“None of this reflects on the jobs being done by our . . . employees, and in fact, I frequently tell my Cabinet colleagues that USDA has the best workforce in the federal government,” Perdue said. “These changes are more steps down the path to better service to our customers, and will help us fulfill our informal motto to ‘Do right and feed everyone. . .”
“We don’t undertake these relocations lightly, and we are doing it to improve performance and the services these agencies provide. We will be placing important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from Washington, D.C. We will be saving money for the taxpayers and improving our ability to retain more employees in the long run. And we are increasing the probability of attracting highly-qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities.”
But employees claim the department’s leadership, including Perdue, turned against the research service after an estimate early last year suggested that the Republican-backed tax plan would largely benefit the wealthiest farmers.
Perdue’s decision to move ERS came several months after news outlets highlighted the USDA study on the Republican tax changes. In response to Perdue’s move, cities from all over the country submitted bids to host the ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which will also move. The finalists, announced May 3, were the greater Kansas City area, North Carolina‘s Research Triangle Park and multiple locations in Indiana.
Accompanying his announcement of a final selection, which is expected as early as this week, Perdue has promised to provide Congress with a cost-benefit analysis detailing why USDA says the move makes financial sense.
The impending announcement comes as pressure builds on Capitol Hill to stop the move. On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to consider a spending bill that includes a provision barring the Agriculture Department from moving the two agencies out of the national capital zone. It also would block Perdue’s decision to put ERS under the control of USDA’s chief economist, a move that placed oversight of the agency closer to the secretary’s office.
Employees said that moving nearly all researchers out of Washington would have a clear impact on the agency’s work. Researchers said they usually draw on information from other USDA divisions, members of Congress and Washington-based stakeholder groups, which would be more difficult from a remote location. Allowing 76 members of the agency to stay in Washington while the other left also impacts morale, they said, and limits collaboration.
Among the employees staying in Washington are senior analysts who conduct global market and crop-outlook estimates and administrative personnel. According to the list, approximately 49 percent of agricultural economists will be allowed to remain in Washington, compared with 14 percent of researchers.
Rumors had been swirling among staff for months about who would be allowed to remain in Washington when all ERS employees were called into an auditorium in March to be briefed by Acting Administrator Chris Hartley. He then read aloud the names of those who qualified to stay. But it wasn’t until employees compiled a full roster of who was staying and going that they got a clear picture of how the agency would be split up.
Decisions on who would stay in Washington were made by ERS leadership and approved by Perdue, according to a “Frequently Asked Questions” document distributed at the March meeting. The FAQ states that “every ERS employee had the ability to provide input” on the move. Senior managers “proposed critical ERS functions” that they believed needed to remain in Washington.
Some employees said that description of the decision-making process validates their concerns that Perdue was behind the move.
“They went in and handpicked who they wanted and called them ‘critical,’” said a current ERS employee.
Neil Conklin, a former senior administrator at ERS under the George W. Bush administration, said the agency stands to be fundamentally changed by the relocation.
“This is going to be very destructive of the agency, as certainly as we’ve known it,” Conklin said.