Guest Commentary

Sonny Perdue’s claims about USDA agencies’ move to KC don’t hold up to scrutiny

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.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would celebrate the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s relocation of two critical research agencies out of Washington, D.C., and into my hometown Kansas City region.

I’m an unabashed Kansas City promoter and devotee. I fell in love with the city — and especially with its baseball team — when I moved to Topeka in 1972. It should have made my heart leap for joy when Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced in June that he would move the USDA’s Economic Research Service and National Institute for Food and Agriculture, or ERS and NIFA, to my beloved Kansas City, along with their 500 high-level jobs.

When you dig a little deeper, however, it’s a hollow victory.

Perdue’s publicly stated reason for moving the agencies is to bring key agricultural researchers closer to the people, businesses and states they serve. Coupled with the economic development that 500 jobs purport to bring, it seems like a sure win for Kansas City. However, his actions betray his true motive for the move: He seeks to gut an agency that produces research that undermines the Trump administration’s trade and agriculture policies. Twice he has sought to slash funding for the ERS, only to be rebuffed by Congress.

This move is simply an end run around Congress, and when all is said and done, it will produce the results Perdue seeks: two research agencies that are shells of their former selves with half the employees, producing half the research.

The Kansas City area is rolling out its red carpet — and $26 million in incentives — to lure ERS and NIFA to the city of fountains, so it’s worth asking whether it will get the A-list agencies it deserves.

On Thursday, when Kansas’ Pat Roberts convenes the Senate Agriculture Committee he chairs for an oversight hearing on agricultural research and the implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill, we hope he will ask the sole witness — USDA Deputy Undersecretary Scott Hutchins — that question.

At the American Statistical Association, the world’s largest community of statisticians, we fear that answer will, sadly, be no.

Perdue’s hasty decision — an effort to get the move underway before Congress can stop it — blindsided employees, giving them just one month to decide if they want to make the move or quit, and then just three months to report to a temporary location in Kansas City.

The doctorate economists and veteran researchers who have homes and mortgages and children in school predictably have headed for the exits, and they have been scooped up by other capital-area agencies and organizations.

On Tuesday, the USDA announced the official response from its affected employees. More than half would rather quit than relocate. Of the 171 tapped for reassignment at the ERS, 99 declined. At the NIFA, 151 of 224 employees said no to a move. That amounts to 145 new workers for Kansas City — far short of the 500 promised.

OK, fine, the ERS can hire new employees from the top-notch land grant colleges in the Midwest that produce terrific researchers every year. On the surface, that sounds like a boon for Kansas City.

But Perdue’s budget requests signal his true intent. The White House budget for 2020 requested $61 million, including $15.5 million in relocation costs, for the ERS. That’s $41.5 million less than appropriated in 2019. In 2019, the agency had funding for 319 employees. Its 2020 budget request funds just 160 — a reduction of 159 people.

In other words, Perdue would like to cut the number of employees nearly in half. To achieve that result without congressional approval, the USDA can simply hold the positions open and allow the agency to wither by attrition.

The cost-benefit analysis, revealed only after Perdue announced the move, provides the pretext of saving taxpayer money that presumably could be plowed back into research. Again, Perdue’s actions have demonstrated that he has no intention of bolstering the research agencies. For the past two years, he has systematically sought to undermine them.

Last year, Perdue ordered researchers to label their peer-reviewed public studies “preliminary,” a move clearly intended to cast doubt on the validity of the results. He withdrew that request only after an uproar from employees and scientific organizations.

That’s why we have so vigorously opposed this move. When you add up all the evidence, we reach the conclusion that the USDA’s motivation is to sharply reduce the research the ERS produces. That will hurt farmers, ranchers — and in the end, Kansas City. That’s no cause for celebration.

Ron Wasserstein is executive director of the American Statistical Association. Before joining the ASA, he was a mathematics and statistics department faculty member and administrator at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, from 1984–2007. During his last seven years at the school, he served as vice president for academic affairs.