The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to grow — not gut — its research capabilities with its move to Kansas City, a top agency official testified Thursday.
Scott Hutchins, the USDA’s deputy under secretary for research, education and economics, laid out the agency’s plans for its move during testimony in front of the U.S. Senate’s agriculture committee. While the hearing was set to discuss implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill, much of the conversation centered on the USDA’s June announcement that it would move more than 500 jobs from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City.
Some critics believe the controversial move was aimed at weakening USDA’s Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The Union of Concerned Scientists accused the administration of “systematically hollowing out USDA’s ability to produce objective science.”
But Hutchins said the department is “fully committed” to seeing its research missions thrive.
Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who lobbied to bring the USDA to the Kansas City area, chairs the ag committee. On Thursday, he asked Hutchins for assurance that the move would not delay key USDA research that industry relies upon, such as monthly commodity outlook reports.
“Yes, I can assure you. And more so, I assure you that we will seek more opportunity to expand the reach and the influence of ERS through the use of considerable cost savings from this move,” Hutchins said. “That is our goal. Our intention is to … allow this agency to grow and to be sustainable in the long term. It’s a very important aspect.”
But Democratic senators questioned the motivation.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, criticized USDA’s “haphazard decision” to move workers out of Washington. The move, she said, will slow down research while USDA tries to rebuild its workforce after losing “irreplaceable expertise.”
“For what? It’s still unclear to me what problem USDA is trying to solve with this move,” she said. “But we can see the problems and the risks related to this move.”
Stabenow pointed to Tuesday’s news that more than half the transferred employees will choose to leave USDA rather than make the move to Kansas City. Those workers who do accept transfers must begin in Kansas City by Sept. 30, though the exact location of the new facility has not been chosen. She asked why the agency was rushing — while officials announced a potential move months ago, workers only found out that their jobs were headed to Kansas City on June 13.
“It’s clear to me that this is not a relocation. It’s a demolition,” she said. “It’s a thinly veiled, ideological attempt to drive away key USDA employees and bypass the intent of Congress.”
Hutchins said the agency underwent a “long, deliberative process.” And he said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is committed to funneling some of the savings from the move — the agency expects to save $300 million over 15 years — into expanding research.
He said the agency has a “very aggressive” hiring strategy: Six new employees will begin work Monday, the first date new or transferring employees may begin work in Kansas City.
But he acknowledged the difficult position of researchers who face a stark choice: move 1,000 miles away or lose their jobs.
“Any move is difficult,” he said. “I’ve done these moves in my professional life over time. They’re very, very difficult.”
Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, said he was glad to see offices move closer to the nation’s agricultural industry. He said Kansas City will also prove much cheaper than Washington.
“I think it makes sense to be in the middle of where the breadbasket is,” he said. “When it comes to where the talent pool is I’ve got to think there’s more of it in the universities that specialize in ag.”
Democrats on Thursday pointed to a recent Politico story that revealed the Trump administration has refused to publicize dozens of studies that include warnings about the effects of climate change. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota running for president, said the agency had “deep-sixed” the results of many studies it found unfavorable.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said the move casts even more suspicion on the administration’s political motives.
“The move’s already dealt a significant blow to the department’s scientific and economic research capacity,” said Leahy. “And many employees within these agencies will tell you honestly they feel this is the intent: to undermine research capacity.”
U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Virginia Democrat, wrote a letter Wednesday criticizing USDA for not responding to employees’ requests to delay their moves for personal or medical issues.
“It is extremely troubling to hear that employees with serious medical conditions and other pressing concerns are being left with uncertainty about their job status,” she said in a news release. “Secretary Perdue is putting his employees in an impossible situation, and the heavy-handed nature of this relocation puts the health and safety of federal workers at risk.”
In a statement, USDA officials said they planned to discuss employee waivers in upcoming meetings with employee unions.
“A final determination has not been made,” the statement said. “The Department will examine requests with fairness and consistency across all employee’s cases.”