House Democrats introduce bill to stop ERS, NIFA moves
In a sign of the battles to come in the next Congress, key House Democrats this week introduced a bill to stop the Trump administration from placing the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service under the USDA chief economist and moving most of the 600-plus employees of the ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of the Washington metropolitan area.
The lead author of the Agriculture Research Integrity Act of 2018 (ARIA) is Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, a member of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, but the co-sponsors include Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., incoming chairman of the subcommittee; incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.; and Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.; Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio; Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H.; James P. McGovern, D-Mass.; Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.; Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif.; and Mark Pocan, D-Wis.
DeLauro and Pocan are also members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has proposed shifting authority of ERS from the undersecretary for research, education and economics to the chief economist within the Office of the Secretary, as well as moving the employees, on the grounds that the changes would increase efficiency, be cheaper and closer to the nation’s farmers and ranchers.
A total of 136 communities have responded to a request from USDA for expressions of interest in hosting the two agencies. Perdue has proceeded with the plan without any public comment on the grounds that it is not legally required. He has also announced that he plans to make a decision on where to locate the agencies by February and to proceed with the moves by summer.
But research organizations have said the changes would not only disrupt the lives of the employees but diminish the Agriculture Department’s status as one of the finest agricultural research institutions in the world and make it difficult for researchers to interact with other federal agencies.
“The National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service are already doing great work to support American farmers and consumers right where they are. Uprooting these key agencies is absolutely unnecessary and risks weakening them when our nation’s food system and agricultural economy need them most,” Pingree said. “My colleagues and I have repeatedly sent this message to the secretary. Since he’s forging ahead regardless of our feedback — or the concerns of the nation’s agriculture research scientists — this bill is a necessary step.”
“I am pleased to join my colleagues in introducing legislation that would ensure the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Economic Research Service can continue to effectively carry out their vital research missions,” said Bishop. “NIFA and ERS work closely with research institutions around the country and collaborate with numerous other federal agencies in the Washington, D.C., area. Abruptly relocating these agencies and politicizing their leadership will disrupt the important work they are doing, and could cause an unnecessary loss in valuable expertise through staffing losses. None of this would be helpful at a time when our farmers are facing retaliatory tariffs and years of declining commodity prices.”
“The proposal to move the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture is yet another attack on science by the Trump administration,” said DeLauro. “For years, both agencies have been invaluable resources on research and support for the food and agricultural community. This shocking proposed move — including the sham application process for the relocation of ERS and NIFA — threatens to politicize these agencies and undermines their ability to carry out their important missions. Congress must step up and pass this bill to prevent the Trump administration from evading Congressional oversight authority.”
“The Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture generate vital information that assists farmers across America,” said McGovern. “It’s deeply concerning to me that the Department of Agriculture’s proposed restructuring and relocation of these agencies could have a dramatic impact on their effectiveness — and appears to overstep the authority granted to the USDA by Congress.”
“In the face of rising economic and environmental challenges, the nation must be able to rely on sound, objective agricultural research to address these concerns,” said Fudge. “Keeping both agencies in place and the Economic Research Service free from political influence will ensure just that.”
“The proposed relocation of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture is unnecessary and could disrupt the critical research and program development that is currently taking place,” said Kuster. “This attempt to downsize the important role of NIFA and the Economic Research Service will hamstring our nation’s ability to conduct cutting-edge research at a time when American agriculture must accelerate productivity.”
“The Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture provide producers, policymakers, and academic institutions valuable data and programmatic support,” said Panetta. “Plans to dislocate them from key federal partners is a disservice to those requiring timely, impartial information. The administration should strengthen budgets and address staffing shortages within these agencies, not force disruptive relocations and reorganizations.”
“Relocating the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture would be extremely disruptive to the mission of the USDA and impact hundreds of federal employees,” said Hoyer.
“The Trump administration’s proposal to reorganize and relocate two USDA agencies would threaten their independence and hinder their mission to provide critical research,” said Norton. “The Trump administration bypassed normal procedures and ignored required considerations when announcing these moves. These agencies should stay in the National Capital Region, where they belong, so federal researchers can continue to do their jobs.”
The bill’s introduction followed months of lobbying by researchers, scientists, statisticians and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition against the changes.
Among those traveling to Washington to lobby against the bill were Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida, and Gale Buchanan, a former Agriculture undersecretary for research, education and economics and dean emeritus of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia.
Payne and Buchanan told The Hagstrom Report that they found receptivity among Democrats in both the House and the Senate, but that the lobbying was difficult because communities in so many states had applied to host the USDA agencies and see attracting them as economic development projects.
Payne and Buchanan said that House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., were supporting the move. Aderholt has made no secret of his support for the move, but he will not be eligible to be ranking member on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee due to Republican rules that limit service as chairs and ranking members.
A spokeswoman for Hoeven said Thursday that “Senator Hoeven’s approach has always been to ensure that whatever changes are made need to be in the best interests of farmers and ranchers.”
The opponents of the move have argued, however, that the researchers do not have much direct interaction with farmers and ranchers, but with researchers in other agencies, officials from other countries and with Congress.
After the bill’s release, Buchanan said, “Output of American agriculture has increased two and a half times over the past half century with no increases in total inputs. This has been made possible by new information, knowledge and technology developed by agriculture research, enabling farmers to use their time and resources more efficiently. NIFA and ERS play a vital role in supporting this effort. To relocate these agencies to some remote location away from the proximity to other research agencies and related activities would greatly diminish their role in coordinating and supporting the research of the nation’s land-grant and other universities.”
“ARIA sends a clear message to the administration that reorganizing ERS under the Office of the Chief Economist in the Secretary’s Office is not in the best interest of U.S. agriculture nor the scientific community writ large,” said Nicole Harriott, policy specialist for NSAC. “Maintaining the integrity and political independence of our nation’s federal research agencies is of the utmost importance. We urge the secretary to reconsider this plan and encourage agricultural appropriators in both parties and both chambers to take action by blocking any attempt to reorganize and relocate ERS and NIFA.”
The American Statistical Association praised the bill.
“We fully endorse the intent of this week’s House bill to keep the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture in the national capital region and the ERS in the USDA research arm,” said Ron Wasserstein, ASA executive director. “The nation’s capital and the current organization alignment best position these two agencies to support American food, agriculture and rural communities through research, analysis and statistics.”
“While we recognize the bill won’t become law in this Congress, we hope it draws further attention to USDA’s counterproductive and poorly justified upheaval of USDA’s research arm,” added Wasserstein.
Others in the broader USDA research and statistical stakeholder community also praised the bill and their sponsors.
Kitty Smith Evans, ERS administrator under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said decades of widespread and profound trust in ERS statistics and analysis would be preserved by the current House bill. “ERS professionals have deep expertise and are highly motivated to produce and disseminate accurate and unbiased information. I hope the House bill will prevent any more of its staff from leaving the agency out of fear for its future.”
“This bill would ensure that ERS is fully funded and fully functional, necessary to understanding the impacts of the new farm bill that will spend some $850 billion over the next eight years on programs that touch more than 40 million Americans,” said Susan Offutt, ERS administrator under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. ❖