Stabenow calls NIFA, ERS moves ‘demolition’
At a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing Thursday on the Agriculture Department’s research program, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., called the Trump administration’s plans to relocate most of the positions in the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from Washington to Kansas City “an attempt to go around Congress and carry out the steep reductions in capacity and research.”
“It’s clear to me that this is not a relocation,” Stabenow said. “It’s a demolition. It’s a thinly-veiled, ideological attempt to drive away key USDA employees and bypass the intent of Congress.”
Stabenow noted that 63% of the employees whose jobs are being relocated have declined to move, and said that USDA is losing “irreplaceable expertise” from researchers, including Vince Crawley, who published export reports; Jeffrey Steiner, who led hemp research; and Tim Steenburg, who does research on rural manufacturing and business innovation.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., noted that Catherine Green, an expert on the economics of organic agriculture, and the staff she trained have also declined to move.
“There are hundreds more stories like theirs that show the knowledge we’re throwing away,” Stabenow said.
“It’s no wonder that leading scientists, land-grant universities, and former USDA officials from both sides of the aisle stand in staunch opposition to this move.
“I urge the administration to stop this and salvage what valuable expertise is left. This decision does far more than hurt USDA employees. If this chaotic plan is not stopped, our farmers, families, and rural communities will be the ones that suffer the most in the long-run.”
The sole witness, Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Scott Hutchins, defended the plan as a cost-saver, while Republican members of the committee mostly avoided the issue of the moves and asked questions about various research initiatives.
Hutchins gave no ground in the Trump administration’s determination to move the jobs to Kansas City, but did note that USDA will begin negotiations today with the American Federation of Government Employees, the unions that both ERS and NIFA employees voted to join.
But in a letter to AFGE, USDA has rejected almost all the demands that the union has made for the negotiations.
An AFGE representative who was present at the hearing also noted that a bid protest from NIFA’s current landlord in Washington, NBL Associates, will also delay USDA’s search for office space in the Kansas City metropolitan area, and that USDA continues to insist that employees make quick decisions about moving, even though it’s unclear in what part of the Kansas City area or state the offices will be located.
Hutchins noted that he has been through relocations in his corporate career and that the percentage of employees who chose to make the move did not surprise him.
He assured the senators that no key USDA reports will be delayed due to the loss of expertise. He also said that ERS has six new hires starting work on Monday in the temporary office space in Kansas City.
Hutchins did say the agencies would “look” at hiring on a contractual basis some employees who are not moving, and that land-grant universities have also offered to fill gaps created by the loss of expertise.
“We will put all of those pieces together, we will not drop the ball at any of these agencies,” he said.
Hutchins also came under pressure from Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and other Democratic senators to provide more information on both the cost-benefit analysis of the moves and on USDA’s research on climate change.
He promised to provide whatever information he could but said a climate change research document cited today by Politico as suppressed was never intended to be public even though a predecessor document was public.