Government & Politics

Plan to move hundreds of USDA jobs to KC or other heartland cities faces backlash in DC

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan to move hundreds of federal research jobs out of the Washington area— possibly to Kansas City— has triggered a backlash from scientists and other agriculture stakeholders.

Critics of the proposed relocation of the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture say moving the agencies to the heartland will hamper collaboration with other science agencies in Washington, hinder communication with Congress and risk the perception of regional bias.

Kansas City area lawmakers aren’t swayed by those arguments. They want the federal jobs in Missouri or Kansas.

This puts Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, and Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, at odds with the bulk of their Democratic colleagues.

“If I were in Maryland, I would be lobbying against it and angry with the people going overboard trying to steal it,” Cleaver joked Tuesday. “But I’m not from Maryland. I’m from Missouri, so we’re going to continue push for it.”

The USDA is considering a joint proposal from Kansas and Missouri to move the two research agencies to the Kansas City area.

“In some ways, I hate to see federal agencies launching a bidding war between cities. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality,” Cleaver said.

The proposed relocation has sparked a backlash from federal employees and from Democratic lawmakers who are pursuing legislation to block the USDA from moving the jobs from the nation’s capital.

Along with the Kansas City proposal, finalists include for the new USDA facilities include North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham area and multiple cities in Indiana. Alternate bids from St. Louis and Madison, Wisconsin, also remain under consideration after the USDA winnowed down an initial list of 136 proposals.

“We are moving fairly quickly on that, so hopefully it’d be days and weeks not anywhere longer than that,” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said during a visit to Raleigh this week.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture studies food conservation, nutrition and ways to enhance the nation’s food supply. The Economic Research Service analyzes the farm economy, food safety and global trade among other topics.

Perdue has argued that moving the agencies closer to farmers will improve their ability to provide research that can benefit them. But critics say it’ll have the opposite effect by creating barriers between the agency scientists and policymakers in Washington.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat with a large number of federal workers in his district, has been an outspoken opponent of the possible relocation. Hoyer, who has large influence over the Democratic caucus, said month that moving the jobs will disrupt the agencies’ research and undermine employee morale.

“If USDA moves forward with the relocation, many top scientists and economists – who are already deeply rooted in their communities and raising families in the Capital region – could choose not to relocate, leaving the agencies without specialized knowledge and expertise,” Hoyer said in a statement.

Employees at ERS voted last month to unionize in the face of the relocation plans and employees are talking openly about their plans to leave the agency if the move happens.

“Within the agency, 99% say that this is terrible: It is going to destroy the agency, destroy science, wreck families and wreck homes. Though there are some that say, if the boss says move, I will move,” said Laura Dodson, an economist with ERS.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, the Senate Agriculture chairman and an outspoken supporter of moving the agencies to Kansas City, said the backlash was expected.

“Obviously, if anybody has 20, 25 years here and they’re settled, and their kids are going to school here, they’re not going to want to move,” Roberts said.

But in the long-term, Roberts said it’ll benefit both the agency and employees if the jobs are moved from Washington to the Kansas City region, where the cost of living is cheaper and Johnson County suburbs have some of the best schools in the nation.

“Does everything need to be in Washington? Of course, the answer’s no,” he said.

Cleaver contrasted rents in Washington, where a small apartment can cost $2,000 a month, with what federal workers could afford in Kansas City for the same price.

“For $2,000 a month in Kansas City, you’ve got a mansion. You’ve got a baby mansion in Kansas City,” he said. “They’ll call you baby rich.”

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers from both states have all sent letters in support of the proposal while the Kansas City Area Development Council and other groups continue to work to draw the agencies to the region.

The details of how the USDA is evaluating the competing proposals have been closely guarded and visits to possible locations for the new offices have not been publicized.

Officials from the USDA visited the Kansas City area last month to review possible sites. “We had a team there of community leaders in Kansas City that was going to welcome them in open arms,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican.

The case against the proposed moves was laid out Wednesday during a meeting of the House Agriculture subcommittee that oversees horticulture and research. The room was overflowing, a sign of how the dispute over the relocation is intensifying.

Chair Stacey Plaskett, the Democratic delegate who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands, blasted the USDA for a lack of transparency in pursuing the relocation and a failure to make a case for the benefits moving the agencies will have on research.

“Not only were stakeholders entirely cut out of this process, they were blindsided by the announcement from USDA last August. And to date, the actual benefits to ag research or an economic analysis of this proposal have not been conveyed,” Plaskett said during her opening statement.

Elizabeth Brownlee, a farmer from Indiana, testified that moving the agencies to her home state wouldn’t actually benefit her as much as having researchers based in Washington where they can more easily communicate with lawmakers.

“These farmers need their voices heard by Congress and USDA. It’s logical to keep these agencies in Washington, DC, where policymaking happens,” Brownlee said.

William Tracy, a professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he hasn’t talked to one scientist who believes moving the agencies out of Washington is a good idea.

He also disputed the notion that moving the agencies to the Midwest would make it easier for farmers and agriculture scientists at universities to work with federal researchers.

“Washington, D.C., is one of the easiest places to get to in this country. It’s easier for me to get here than it would be to get to West Lafayette, Indiana, from Madison, Wisconsin,” Tracy said.

Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida, told the committee that many problems facing modern agriculture require input from multiple federal agencies to solve.

“You get the best science when you can bring different disciplines together to examine a problem from many different angles,” Payne said. “…It would be so much harder if those departments were in different states.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, disputed the idea that collaboration between agencies would be hindered by moving USDA research jobs out of Washington. “It’s the 21st Century. A lot of people telecommute. We have ways to link up offices,” Hawley said.

No witnesses from the USDA or any other organization appeared at the House hearing to speak in favor of the possible move.

But GOP lawmakers say the opposition to moving the jobs is overblown. Rep. Neal Dunn, a Florida Republican, said that a Democratic bill aimed at blocking Perdue from relocating the agencies would as written force hundreds of USDA jobs currently in the states back to Washington.

“I think it’s knee-jerk,” said Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee. “Anything that (President) Trump wants even though it comes through a very reliable process to analyze what will be best for the agency, Democrats are just going to oppose it.”

GOP lawmakers used Wednesday’s hearing as an opportunity to tout the bids from their home states. Rep. David Rouzer, a North Carolina Republican, quipped that when people visit his state they never want to leave.

In support of her pitch for the Kansas City, Hartzler submitted a joint letter from the presidents the University of Missouri, Kansas State University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Iowa State University backing the proposal to relocate to the region.

“We are within 300 miles of six land grant universities,” Hartzler said. “They have had trouble attracting that talent, those people with the Ph.D.’s in the agriculture and economics fields, and they are graduating from those universities. So it’ll be a good opportunity to fill those positions where they can’t find people right now in the Washington, D.C., area.”

The Raleigh News & Observer’s Zachery Eanes and Kansas City Star’s Steve Vockrodt contributed to this report.
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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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