Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) led members of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee today in a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) seeking answers about a cost-benefit analysis that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has refused to make public despite repeated efforts by Congressional requestors. USDA has relied on findings from this analysis to justify the relocation of two key research agencies out of Washington, D.C., which has resulted in hundreds of employees being removed from their jobs and an estimated cost of up to $215 million in lost expertise. The Representatives also requested that GAO review the relocation’s impact on the agencies’ missions and the critical contributions to scientific research that they provide.
“This relocation has resulted in hundreds of federal employees being forced out of their jobs and critical scientific research being utterly stifled -- so how is it that USDA came to believe this move would benefit the missions of these agencies and American taxpayers?” said Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton. “USDA’s refusal to comply with congressional oversight requests on the cost-benefit analysis raises serious questions about the decision-making process which led to the relocation of ERS and NIFA. I hope and expect that GAO will provide the transparency owed to this Committee, the employees of these agencies, and the American people.”
“Congresswoman Wexton’s GAO review request is a crucial step in holding this administration accountable for the damage it has caused to our nation’s premier food and agriculture research agencies. Farmers and all Americans deserve to know if the relocation wasted taxpayer money. GAO’s review will also help prevent this Administration from taking a wrecking ball to other federal research agencies,” said Dr. Rebecca Boehm, Economist with the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“That USDA may have uprooted entire research units to undermine the work of non-partisan scientists, and at the expense of American taxpayers, is deeply concerning. As detailed in a recent report from the bipartisan National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy, Congress has a duty to investigate and respond to the politicization of government science, upon which so many policies pertaining to public health, the environment, and the economy depend,” said Martha Kinsella, Counsel, Democracy Program, Brennan Center for Justice.
In June, the USDA released an 11-page Executive Summary of the cost-benefit analysis, which it paid Ernst & Young approximately $339,000 of taxpayer dollars to produce. The full analysis behind the summary, however, has been blocked from the public and from Congress. The Summary claimed that the relocation of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) away from the National Capital Region to the Kansas City Region would save nearly $300 million over 15 years. However, as the Representatives point out in the letter, this Summary failed to indicate the cost to taxpayers in the form of research lost due to employee attrition or whether or not USDA considered relocating within the National Capital Region to lower-cost office space they already owned. It is also unclear as to whether the criteria of the analysis met standard regulatory cost benefit analysis guidelines.
Based on the latest available data, the relocation has left approximately 64% of ERS positions and 75% of NIFA positions empty. As a result, the USDA is now delaying the publication of dozens of critical research reports, some of which may have to be abandoned entirely; there are also accounts of NIFA grants going unfulfilled. An independent analysis conducted by the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association estimated that the move could end up costing between $83 and $182 million, largely because of this lost research value.
Given concerns that critical research from NIFA and ERS has been compromised by this relocation, the letter also requests a review into what actions, if any, USDA took to comply with legal and regulatory requirements in planning and conducting its relocation process, a review of how the relocation is likely to impact the short and long-term missions of the agencies, and what oversight, if any, might be required to ensure that any future agency relocation is conducted in an objective way that upholds agency mission continuity.
Of note, the USDA Inspector General has concluded that the agency does not have the budgetary authority to relocate the two agencies.
Rep. Wexton has been a vocal opponent of the USDA relocation since it was announced, and--most recently--has advocated for House-passed legislation that would block funding for the implementation of the NIFA and ERS relocation in the FY2020 funding bill.
The letter is signed by Representatives Donald S. Beyer (D-VA), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), and Paul Tonko (D-NY).
The full text of the letter can be found here.