The Planted Row: Agency relocation is not 'draining the swamp'

Stan Wise
Farm Forum Editor

Chances are good that you’ve already heard about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan to relocate two agencies — the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture — out of Washington, D.C., to Kansas City.

In case you haven’t, the USDA announced the move a year ago. This summer, it told hundreds of researchers they could either relocate to Kansas City or lose their jobs.

Let’s take a moment to think about what we asked these researchers to do.

Chances are decent that you live in a two-income household. If your employer told you pick up and move halfway across the country, would your spouse be willing to leave their job? Would you be willing to pull your kids out of their schools and move them away from their friends and family members? Would you be willing to leave your friends, family and church behind?

Asking people to move in order to keep their jobs forces them into a cruel choice. Some might say that such a choice is less cruel than simply laying them off, but that was never an option in this case. It was up to Congress to decide whether to cut the USDA’s workforce, and Congress chose not to.

The USDA has sold this move as improving the agencies’ ability to hire and retain quality employees, save money (a claim that is disputed by economists with the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association), and move employees closer to people in the agricultural world. If this move was about a workforce reduction or punishing agencies that sometimes publish results that contradict the administration’s policy agendas, the department hasn’t said so.

Too bad acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney let the cat out of the bag on Aug. 2 at a Republican Party gala in South Carolina.

“You’ve heard about ‘drain the swamp.’ What you probably haven’t heard is what we are actually doing. I don’t know if you saw the news the other day, but the USDA just tried to move, or did move, two offices out of Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Yes, you can applaud that one. That’s what we’ve been talking about doing. Guess what happened? Guess what happened? More than half the people quit.”

Mulvaney went on to say the plan was a “wonderful way to sort of streamline government.”

He made it very clear. The administration is upending lives so it can score a political point.

It’s possibly illegal.

The Office of Inspector General released a report on Aug. 5 that said, according to the 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act, the USDA must get congressional approval before spending money on the relocation — approval Congress has not given.

In response, the USDA said it does not acknowledge the constitutionality of that provision in the appropriations bill. (Someone needs to tell the USDA that the judicial branch declares laws unconstitutional, not the executive branch.)

Any legal fight over the relocation will further offset any potential savings.

The employees of the two relocating agencies aren’t the only losers in this situation. We’re losing, too. The move is gutting one of the top economic research institutions in the world. That institution, the Economic Research Service, works for the American people, and it does so by making sure policy makers in Washington have good information when making their decisions. Now, with a reduced staff and far from the capital, its ability to provide research-backed information to our political leaders will be hampered.

This isn’t “draining the swamp” or fighting the “Deep State.”

This is shooting ourselves in the foot.