USDA to move 2 bureaus out of D.C.

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, August 13, 2018

The Agriculture Department will move as many as 700 employees — largely scientists and economic researchers — out of the nation’s capital region by the end of next year.

The moves, announced yesterday by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, are part of a realignment of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Perdue said the change would save money and move employees closer to the rural customers they serve, although he said the new location for the agencies hasn’t been decided.

“We’ve seen significant turnover in these positions; it has been difficult to recruit employees to the Washington, D.C., area, particularly given the high cost of living and long commutes,” Perdue said.

About 400 of the positions are in NIFA and 300 in ERS, the department said. That constitutes most of the positions in those agencies, USDA said.

In an email to employees, Perdue said employees who move would receive the same base pay, as well as relocation assistance. No one will have to leave his or her job, he said, but the department is seeking permission from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget to offer early retirements and voluntary separation incentive payments.

The department also said it’s moving ERS away from the department’s research, education and economics mission area — under the supervision of an undersecretary — to the Office of the Chief Economist, which reports directly to the Agriculture secretary.

“This just makes sense because they have similar missions,” Perdue said. “These two agencies were aligned once before, and bringing them back together will enhance the effectiveness of our economic analysis at USDA.”

The moves announced yesterday are the latest in Perdue’s broader effort to reorganize USDA.

The Union of Concerned Scientists criticized the change for moving scientists farther from agency decisionmakers in Washington and added that the Trump administration had earlier this year proposed cutting the ERS budget in half. Putting ERS under the direct supervision of a political appointee could limit the integrity and autonomy of agency research, the group said.

“These changes are yet another example of the Trump administration’s attempts to weaken scientific integrity in policymaking,” the group said in a news release.