May 22, 2019

Group Hopes to Block USDA Relocation

USDA

A group of congressional Democrats is working to stop the USDA from relocating parts of its office outside of the Washington, DC, region. Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) have sent letter to the House Appropriations Committee urging its members to prohibit the US Department of Agriculture from using government money to carry out its proposal to move the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from the region and to reorganize ERS under the Office of the Secretary, a political office.

The letter on this topic was signed by six lawmakers: Reps. Jamie Raskin (Md.-8th), Donald S. Beyer (Va.-8th), Jimmy Panetta (Calif.-20th), John P. Sarbanes (Md.-3rd), Jennifer Wexton (Va.-10th), and Gerald E. Connolly (Va.-11th).

In 2018, because he was asked by Ms. Norton and Mr. Hoyer, the USDA inspector general began reviewing the proposal. Despite the continuing review and concerns about the proposal expressed by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, USDA had indicated it plans to follow through with the proposed relocation.

“We continue to believe that the USDA lacks the legal authority to carry out this proposal,” Congresswoman Norton and Congressman Hoyer said in the letter. “However, even if it had such authority, USDA has not done the proper analysis of the cost and benefits, and this proposal will harm agriculture research and our constituents.”

In the letter, the lawmakers said that essential questions regarding the legality of USDA’s proposal, the rationale for the proposal, and the process used to develop it remain unanswered.

In August 2018, the USDA issued a Notice of Request for Expression of Interest for Potential Sites to move the two parts of the agency, but did so without clear guidance as to its legal authority to relocate an agency without congressional approval or the budget authority to acquire the real estate needed to execute the move of the agencies. In a very unusual decision, the USDA opted to issue its RFEI under its own authority rather than under the leasing authority of the General Services Administration and to state its opinion that the scope of the RFEI encompassed the entire country. However, even if the USDA’s leasing authority would provide enough legal authority for a long-term lease agreement, a larger issue surrounds whether the USDA has the budget authority to proceed with the move.

Section 717(a) of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-141) prohibits the use of funds for the relocation of an office or employees or the reorganization of offices, programs, or activities unless the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are given written notice and grant approval 30 days before the moneys are reprogrammed for those purposes. USDA’s plan to move, which has not been approved by appropriators, would both relocate employees and reorganize an office by moving ERS into the Office of the Secretary.

The USDA has given three reasons for its proposal to move ERS and NIFA away from the nation’s capital but has given insufficient evidence to support the accuracy of the reasons, Mr. Hoyer said. Secretary Perdue has cited the USDA’s inability to attract and retain highly qualified employees, a need to locate USDA resources closer to stakeholders and to reduce costs of staff and real estate. However, as recently as Jan. 9, 2018, GSA submitted a prospectus on behalf of the USDA suggesting the continued housing of NIFA in Washington, DC, USDA’s home since the 1800s and the hub of a workforce that ranks among the most highly educated in the country.

Since the submission, USDA has offered no evidence that it has had difficulty recruiting and retaining ERS and NIFA staff. Similarly, USDA has not given an explanation for why ERS and NIFA, as opposed to other USDA agencies, need to move close to stakeholders and leave the area. USDA has also not indicated why it has pursued a relocation strategy independent of GSA, the federal agency tasked with providing real estate services to other federal agencies.

Mr. Hoyer and Ms. Norton expressed deep concerns that the process used to develop USDA’s relocation proposal might have omitted critical considerations.

The USDA Office of Inspector General began a review of USDA’s relocation and reorganization proposal for ERS and NIFA in November 2018. The OIG review includes a determination of USDA’s legal and budgetary authority to make the move and a determination of its adherence to established procedures that relate to agency realignment and relocation and procedures associated with cost-benefit analysis. The review continues.

Despite the OIG review and the demonstration that a delay in USDA’s plans is necessary, USDA is continuing to take steps to move ERS and NIFA. Because of that, Mr. Hoyer and Ms. Norton are asking that the following language be included in the FY 20 bill:

“None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Agriculture shall be available for the relocation of either the Economic Research Service (ERS) or the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) outside of the National Capital Region, and none of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Agriculture shall be available for the reorganization or realignment of either ERS or NIFA outside of USDA’s Research, Education and Economics Mission Area.”

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For more information about House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, visit his Leader member page.

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