Unhappy With Findings, Agriculture Department Plans to Move Its Economists Out of Town

WASHINGTON — For years, economists at the Agriculture Department have churned out studies that forecast the effects of food trends, environmental changes and trade policy on rural America. But these days, career staff members at the Economic Research Service have been anxiously trying to predict their own futures.

Last year, after an economist with the division presented research that contradicted the Trump administration’s views about the president’s signature tax cuts, the Agriculture Department put into effect new rules about submitting work to peer-reviewed journals. Now, Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, is planning to move the roughly 300-person research unit, along with another division, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, out of Washington and closer to America’s farmers.

Mr. Perdue, who tried to shrink the agencies’ funding early in President Trump’s term, is expected to detail plans to relocate both units to Missouri, Kansas, Indiana or North Carolina, or another location far from the capital. He believes that the move, which could be announced in the coming days, will save money and make research more relevant.

But some critics see the relocation plan as another attempt by the Trump administration to diminish the role of science in government policymaking. Economists at the research service, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their views of the office’s internal dynamics, said they believed they were being shipped out of town as retribution for producing work that clashed with the administration’s agenda.

“These are neutral agencies; they collect data and analyze it,” said Peter Winch, an organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees, which is representing some of the Agriculture Department employees facing relocation. “The general idea here is to politicize or take away from a generally neutral stand.”

The Trump administration came to Washington with promises to “drain the swamp” and “deconstruct the administrative state” and has frequently found itself clashing with career economists. Research about the effects of repealing the Affordable Care Act, the cost of tax cuts, the economic effect of tariffs and the threat of greenhouse gas emissions have, on different occasions, been publicly scorned, suppressed or watered down.

Mr. Winch said that plans to marginalize the career staff members became clear last year after an economist presented research at an academic conference showing that the benefits of Mr. Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut would flow primarily to the richest farmers.

A model of the law’s effects on farm households by Siraj G. Bawa and James M. Williamson, of the Economic Research Service, projected that 70 to 80 percent of the law’s benefits would go to the top 1 percent of farm households by income. After the report received attention in the news media, Mr. Winch said that economists faced new rules about submitting their work to peer-reviewed journals. Mr. Williamson recently left the agency.

The study on tax cuts was not the only issue that frustrated political appointees at the Agriculture Department. Current and former employees said that they were asked to produce research that would justify the administration’s environmental and trade policies on short notice.

“My sense is that they’re trying to get rid of a pesky voice in the administration that isn’t always reliably or predictably supportive of policy,” said Susan Offutt, who served as administrator of the Economic Research Service under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The Economic Research Service was founded in 1961 to provide “incisive, objective and reliable research and analysis for both public and private decision makers,” according to a history on its website. More recently, its work has broadened to focus on food safety and nutrition, natural resources, trade and international agriculture and the environment. Its offices are housed in three floors of a building that sits about a 10-minute walk from department headquarters.

Katherine Smith Evans, who served as administrator of the Economic Research Service under Mr. Bush and President Barack Obama, cited food stamps and trade as two areas where the Trump administration might have views that contrast with the agency’s research findings.

The research service “has done a lot of work on trade that shows that tariffs are bad for agricultural producers and free trade is good for most of them,” she said.

It came as a surprise to employees at the agency last August when Mr. Perdue, who served two terms as Georgia’s governor, unveiled a relocation plan. He said that moving the agencies would help attract and retain staff, arguing that the high cost of living and long commute times in the Washington area may be discouraging potential employees. He also suggested that the move would save money in the long run, in part because of the availability of cheaper office space in other parts of the country.

The idea has received support from many Republicans in Congress, particularly those from farm states who agree that the agency would be better served by having its researchers closer to actual farmland.

Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas, wrote a letter to Mr. Perdue last year praising the idea of shifting the office location. Mr. Moran argued that moving the agencies to Kansas would open them to a broader pool of talent and bring the economists closer to many of the companies that they serve that focus on food production.

This month, Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, echoed that sentiment, noting that a move to his state would “bring federal resources closer to stakeholders.” And a group of House Republicans made the case recently that other Agriculture Department research divisions have staff located outside Washington and have not suffered for it.

But some staff members are objecting to the move and are trying to find ways to stop it. This month, Economic Research Service employees voted to unionize, a move that could give them more leverage when Mr. Perdue rolls out his plan. Employees at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds scientific research at colleges and elsewhere, are scheduled to vote on unionizing next month.

Democrats in Congress have also expressed concern about the effort to relocate staff. Last week, Senate Democrats unveiled legislation, called the Agriculture Research Integrity Act, that would block the move.

“The experts at NIFA and E.R.S. conduct the scientific research that helps grow the food our families eat. They need a seat at the table with decision makers,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland. “This proposed move — coupled with other efforts to undermine their work — is part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to banish facts and science from policy decisions. We are committed to fighting it tooth and nail.”

The House Agriculture Committee plans to hold a hearing next week on what the moves would mean for agricultural research. And a House appropriations bill allocated $87.8 million for the research arm’s “necessary expenses” but included language to prohibit those funds from being used to relocate the Economic Research Service.

Mr. Trump’s most recent budget proposal called for cutting the agency’s budget to $61 million, an amount that would include funds to pay for the move. While a small number of employees would stay in Washington under the plan, most would be moved and the overall head count was expected to shrink.

Critics of the move are concerned that it could politicize the research. Along with the relocation, the Economic Research Service will be overseen more directly by Mr. Perdue under a proposed reorganization, raising fears that its work will be less independent.

“As the economic and environmental challenges facing family farmers and ranchers mount, it is critical that U.S.D.A. prioritize the work of the agencies and maintain the integrity and impact of public research,” Rob Larew, vice president of public policy for the National Farmers Union, said in March. “Farmers Union urges U.S.D.A. to end the relocation of these two important agencies.”

In the meantime, many of the employees at the Economic Research Service have been waiting for word on which city Mr. Perdue will pick — and polishing their résumés.

Dan Prager, an economist who studies farm income, left the agency last month after months of sinking morale. He was concerned that staff research was being used to justify policy positions and frustrated that the department never provided a cost-benefit analysis to justify the move.

After spending five years with the research unit, Mr. Prager fears that relocating it will be a big loss for rural America. Its work will be farther from policymakers and it is being drained of talent and its independent spirit.

“The farmers and ranchers will be worse off because there won’t be as much information on issues related to their livelihood,” he said.

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