House, Senate pass approps bill with ERS, NIFA report language

Fred Hoefner

The Senate and the House today passed an appropriations bill to keep federal agencies including the Agriculture Department open and avoid a government shutdown.

President Donald Trump will sign the bill and declare a national emergency to get funding to build a wall on the border with Mexico, the White House said.

The appropriations “minibus,” as it has been called because it covers several federal agencies, includes funding for the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

But the bill’s report section also includes language directing USDA to submit estimates of costs to move employees of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of the Washington metropolitan area, and says that Congress supports an “indefinite delay” in the Trump administration’s plans to move the Economic Research Service to the Office of the Chief Economist.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, also introduced a bill today to stop the moves. (See following story.)

Report language does not have the force of law, however, and there are rumors that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue plans to go ahead with the moves. But Perdue told reporters last week that he would keep Congress informed, and that he considers member of Congress USDA’s “board of directors.”

Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told The Hagstrom Report, “I have been around long enough to know that secretaries and undersecretaries and administrators who thumb their nose at clear directives in report language usually end up paying a price.“

Erik Kamrath of the Union of Concerned Scientists said, “Although not legally binding, Congress sent a strong message to Secretary Perdue in the funding bill’s explanatory statement released this week regarding the secretary’s proposed relocation and reorganization of two key U.S. Department of Agriculture research agencies.”

“The language included in the statement alerts Secretary Perdue that he’s failed to provide any reasonable justification for making this move. Clearly and correctly, lawmakers are not convinced such a move would benefit agriculture research, or the farmers, consumers, and communities across the country who depend on it.”

American Statistical Association Executive Director Ron Wasserstein said, “By proceeding with their rushed plans, USDA disregards the perspective not only of the vocal members of Congress but also the broader USDA agricultural and food research community.”

The report language says:

“The conferees are concerned about the unknown costs associated with the proposed move of the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service to a new location outside of the National Capital Region.

“In submitting the fiscal year 2020 budget justification, the department is directed to include all cost estimates for the proposed move of the two agencies, as well as a detailed analysis of any research benefits of their relocation.

“There is an expectation that this process will be followed in the future for any other potential proposed agency relocations by the department.

“The conferees support an indefinite delay in the proposed transfer of ERS to the Office of the Chief Economist. At this time, the conferees find it appropriate for ERS to remain under the Research, Education and Economics mission area.

“The conferees take this position as several questions remain about the merits of the proposed transfer as well as the proposed relocation of ERS outside of the National Capital Region. Insufficient information and justification relating to the reorganization and relocation make moving forward on these proposals premature at this time.

“The conferees await the cost-benefit analysis of the National Finance Center and accompanying sufficiency review by the Comptroller General of the United States as directed in P.L. 115-141.

“The conferees remind the department of enacted language prohibiting the initiating, planning, developing, implementing, or making of any changes to remove or relocate any systems, missions, or functions of the offices of the chief financial officer or any personnel from the National Finance Center prior to written notification to and prior approval of the Committee on Appropriations of both Houses of Congress.”

–The Hagstrom Report