The Trump administration’s plan to move the headquarters of the Economic Research Service (ERS) out of Washington, D.C. hit a major snag as national capital region lawmakers are pushing back against the relocation, which many see as the administration’s attempt to politicize research and science.
In a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, capital region lawmakers led by Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) expressed objection to Perdue’s plan to move the ERS and another USDA research agency, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), out of the national capital region.
They questioned the legality of and rationale behind the move and requested that the USDA refrain from taking further steps until outstanding questions have been answered.
“The USDA has cited three reasons for its proposal to move ERS and NIFA away from the nation’s capital but has supplied insufficient evidence to support the accuracy of those reasons,” wrote the lawmakers. “You specifically cited the USDA’s inability to attract and retain highly qualified staff, a need to place USDA resources closer to stakeholders and to reduce costs of employees and real estate. The lack of answers from USDA is particularly concerning.”
In addition to Hoyer and Norton, the letter was signed by Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Mark Warner (D-VA), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Representatives Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), John Sarbanes (D-MD), Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Don Beyer (D-VA), Anthony Brown (D-MD), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), David Trone (D-MD), and Jennifer Wexton (D-VA).
“This relocation threatens to undermine the important work of these agencies and disrupt the lives of hundreds of federal employees and their families,” Hoyer said. “Until USDA fully and satisfactorily explains the reasons for this move, the legal authority it has to commit to a new lease, the steps it has taken to ensure that the effectiveness of these agencies will be strengthened – not weakened – and the cost-benefit analysis underlying its actions, USDA should not move forward with the relocation.”
“This proposal is particularly troubling as the Office of the Inspector General has called for delaying the USDA’s plans and Congress has requested, but not received, additional information,” Norton said. “Until Congress has been consulted, it would be foolhardy to move forward with the potentially illegal action of moving the ERS and NIFA.”
USDA on May 3 announced the top three locations being considered for the new location, which is set to happen this summer. Besides relocating the ERS, the administration is also planning on moving the agency out from USDA's Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission-area and into the Office of Secretary (OSEC), where it will be subject to political influence. Due to that potential for political influence, the plan to make ERS a part of OSEC will jeopardize its ability to continue to provide fact-based policy analysis.
USDA ERS employees overwhelmingly voted to join AFGE on May 9 to have a say on the proposed relocation and other working conditions. With their newly-formed union, workers now have the right to meet with ERS leadership and will be pressing for a delay and reconsideration of the relocation decisions.
They are holding a demonstration next month to protest the relocation. The demonstration will also spotlight the administration’s attempts to politicize their science-based research, especially when that research contradicts the administration’s position on various issues, including climate change and taxes.
NIFA employees are also working towards winning their union with AFGE. Their union election is set for June 11.