Perdue responds on ERS, NIFA moves as opposition continues

The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue defended every aspect of plans to place the Economic Research Service under the Office of the Chief Economist and to move most National Institute for Food and Agriculture employees out of the Washington area in a letter to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

A copy of the letter, written in response to a letter from the two Senate Agriculture Committee leaders, was obtained by The Hagstrom Report.

Just as Roberts and Stabenow received it, opposition to the plan appeared to intensify. The American Statistical Association posted a recording of a webinar recently that was attended by 464 people, as well as links to sign-on letters to Congress opposing the changes to ERS.

In his letter, Perdue acknowledged that both ERS and NIFA interact with congress and other Washington officials, and said “We are committed to retaining the necessary staff from each agency in the D.C. area to continue to fulfill these important roles.”

Perdue said he hopes to announce the location to which most ERS and NIFA employees would be moved by January, and to open operations in their new locations by summer.

In what might be interpreted as a hint that the chairman and the ranking member should consider the possibility that ERS and NIFA might be located in one of their states, Perdue wrote, “I was more than impressed when I visited both Kansas State and Michigan State, along with the multiple other institutions I have visited during my tenure as secretary.”

Perdue wrote that most of the savings “will be realized due to lower staff locality pay adjustments and future facility cost savings in areas outside of the national capital region as compared to D.C.”

Perdue maintained that USDA has the legal authority to make the changes and did not need to ask for public comment because “This is an internal operational decision that we typically do not solicit for public comment, similarly to our decision to create the Farm Production and Conservation Mission area.”

Perdue added, however, “With that said, we are actively meeting with stakeholders and welcome feedback as we go forward.”

Meanwhile, the American Statistical Association posted its webinar audio and provided links to download letters to Congress expressing opposition to moving ERS from the Research, Education and Economics mission area to the Office of the Chief Economist and to move most of its employees.

Steve Pierson, director of science policy at ASA, wrote, “We have a sign-on letter for organizations to congress expressing opposition to the decision and urging they (i) retain the ERS in the national Capitol region; (ii) maintain and strengthen the integrity and independence of the ERS as a statistical agency; and (iii) keep the budget and personnel for the USDA Economic Research Service at least at FY 2018 levels.”

“If you know of an organization with which you are affiliated that is not among the 51 signers, please recommend they join the letter,” Pierson said. “We also have a letter to congress about ERS for former senior administration officials and heads of statistical agencies to sign.”

Pierson noted that ASA will promote ERS on the “Count On Stats” section of its wesbite and Twitter account, and invited people to use social media to share “why you value ERS.”

“Count On Stats is a campaign to promote the value and importance of government statistics to our economy, evidence-based policymaking, and our well-being,” Pierson said.

“Because of the diverse and impactful work of the 13 primary federal statistical agencies, we are featuring a different agency each week with a plan to cycle through each four times a year.”

In addition, Laurie Ristino, who was a lawyer in the USDA Office of the General Counsel for 21 years, wrote a blog for the Center for Progressive Reform that the plan to move ERS is part of a Trump administration campaign that is “draining Washington of science and talent.” ❖