Agriculture Dept. Announces Plan to Move Economists to Kansas City Region

WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department announced on Thursday that it planned to relocate two scientific divisions to the Kansas City region from Washington, despite resistance from career staff members and concern that the move will erode the quality of research at the agency.

More than 500 jobs will shift across the country as the department moves its Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture with the intent of bringing research closer to the agricultural communities that it serves. The move is projected to save the department nearly $300 million over 15 years.

“The Kansas City region has proven itself to be a hub for all things agriculture and is a booming city in America’s heartland,” Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, said on Thursday.

The move follows a nearly yearlong process to find a new home for the divisions. Plans for the relocation have generated a backlash from employees who have been fearful about their jobs being moved and who have speculated that the Trump administration is trying to stifle research that at times has clashed with its political agenda.

As Mr. Perdue addressed staff members on Thursday about the move, some employees stood and turned their backs to him in protest.

“The U.S.D.A. has provided no rational justification to employees, to Congress or to its stakeholders for this move, which will make it harder for the agencies to coordinate with other science and research agencies,” said J. David Cox Sr., the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “We will continue to work with Congress and other parties to fight this wrongheaded proposal, which is little more than a backdoor way to slash the work force and silence the parts of the agencies’ research that the administration views as inconvenient.”

Democrats in Congress have been sharply critical of the plan and have said they will try to limit the Agriculture Department’s ability to fund the relocation.

“I stand with my colleagues in support of language in the fiscal year 2020 agriculture appropriations package to stop the department from using any money for this relocation,” Representative Donald S. Beyer Jr., Democrat of Virginia, said in a statement. “The Trump administration must put a stop to forcing federal employees from choosing either their jobs or their homes in Virginia.”

But lawmakers whose states stand to gain from the move cheered the decision on Thursday.

“It is always positive when our government can operate outside of Washington and closer to the people it serves, and I am certain that the decision to relocate NIFA and E.R.S. to Kansas City is a good one,” said Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas. “I look forward to helping welcome these U.S.D.A. agencies and employees to Kansas City.”

Mr. Perdue suggested that he was prepared for pushback from Congress but said that he hoped it would not try to prevent his department from carrying out its plan.

“Certainly, Congress can do what Congress does, and we will respect that,” Mr. Perdue said. “We obviously hope that Congress will recognize that this is a legitimate executive function.”

He added that the Agriculture Department does not “try to tell Congress how to run their business, and hopefully we will be allowed to complete this move with minimal disruption.”

Staff members are expected to move by the end of September, but some employees facing relocation had already begun leaving the divisions in recent months. Many more are expected to quit or seek transfers to other government agencies in the coming weeks.

Mr. Perdue said that he was not trying to punish the staff at the agencies with the relocation.

“Some have expressed displeasure with this, as you might expect, and that’s understandable,” he said, noting that workers in Washington have many job options. “We didn’t do this with disruption in mind.”

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