Government & Politics

USDA move to Kansas City may have violated law, subverted Congress, report finds

Employees protest plan to move USDA jobs to Kansas City

The USDA’s decision to move hundreds of research jobs out of Washington to Kansas City has triggered a backlash among federal employees. Employees stood in silent protest during a meeting about the move to Kansas City.
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The USDA’s decision to move hundreds of research jobs out of Washington to Kansas City has triggered a backlash among federal employees. Employees stood in silent protest during a meeting about the move to Kansas City.

The United States Department of Agriculture may have violated federal law in moving two agencies from the nation’s capital to Kansas City, according to a review by the Office of Inspector General.

USDA’s independent inspector general studied whether Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had the legal and budgetary authority to transfer more than 500 jobs within the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

In a report released Monday, the inspector general concluded the agency may have violated federal rules in funding the transfers without receiving the proper budgetary authority or issuing proper notice to Congress.

The report from the inspector general highlighted five areas of concern, to which the agency responded. The inspector general agreed with the agency’s arguments on four of five issues. But the watchdog disagreed with USDA’s claims that it did not need congressional approval.

The federal Omnibus Act requires that the agriculture secretary obtain permission and notify appropriations committees in the U.S. House and Senate before creating new programs, eliminating programs or relocating offices or employees. The department did provide notification but did not obtain congressional approval.

USDA claimed those rules were unconstitutional, leaning on previous interpretations from the U.S. Supreme Court and the Government Accountability Office.

“To say the Department was out of step with budgetary requirements disregards the authority given to the Executive Branch by the U.S. Constitution,” a USDA spokesperson said in a statement Monday.

But the inspector general pointed out that USDA lawyers had used the opposite logic in previous litigation, arguing that it could not issue more emergency food assistance without approval from appropriations committees in both houses of Congress.

The move to Kansas City — and the speed with which the department is pursuing it — has been highly controversial in Washington. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, issued a statement late Monday saying the report makes it clear that the USDA violated the law in bypassing Congress.

“It is extremely disappointing, but not surprising in this Administration, that the USDA General Counsel argued, inconsistent with positions it had taken previously, that USDA can ignore those provisions,” the statement said. “The Secretary must follow the will of Congress and refrain from moving forward with the relocation until Congress approves the use of funds for those purposes as directed by the fiscal year 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act.

“USDA must follow the law, period. It ought not change interpretations when it is convenient for the Administration or the Secretary at any given moment.”

On June 13, Perdue announced plans to relocate hundreds of USDA workers to the Kansas City area, arguing the move would save taxpayers millions and put researchers closer to farmers. But opponents suspected the move was aimed at decimating research output. On July 16, USDA reported that 145 workers planned to follow their jobs to Kansas City, while 250 would leave the agency, meaning 36.7% accepted their transfer assignments.

In the report, the inspector general recommended the agency obtain congressional approval before obligating funds related to the relocation of workers to Kansas City.

The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives in late June passed an appropriations bill that included no funding for the relocation to Kansas City. But that budget, which has not yet been passed by the GOP-controlled Senate, won’t take effect until October.

The agency has already moved forward with plans to transfer the jobs to Kansas City.

In the report, USDA lawyers maintained that the agency “acted fully in accordance with applicable law and procedure governing each of the issues raised” by the audit. An agency spokesperson on Monday said the probe affirmed USDA’s decision to relocate.

“This case is closed,” the spokesperson said.

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