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Critics Say USDA Relocation Proposal Is A Political Move


A couple of federal agencies you might not have heard of track how the country's food system works. The Trump administration wants to move them out of Washington. And as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, that could have consequences for farmers, taxpayers and consumers.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The Economic Research Service collects and crunches numbers on everything from how much corn syrup Americans eat to how tariffs affect farmers. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture funds research closely tracking climate change, for instance. Last summer, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that both agencies would be leaving Washington. He says he wants them closer to farmers and public universities doing agricultural research.

JERRY MORAN: My first thought was Kansas City would be the perfect place.

MORRIS: Kansas Senator Jerry Moran supports the move. Greater Kansas City is in the hunt along with North Carolina and Indiana.

MORAN: Not every job in government needs to be in Washington, D.C. And in addition to the benefits that can come from places across the country by having those federal jobs there, if done correctly, this is an opportunity to save some money.

MORRIS: But many in the research community say it's not efficiency driving the move, but hostility towards science.

RICARDO SALVADOR: So I think that moving the agencies out of D.C. is going to significantly dilute their effectiveness as well as their relevance.

MORRIS: Ricardo Salvador with the Union of Concerned Scientists says the Economic Research Service will lose relevance if it's removed from policymakers and other federal researchers. Some say the agency's effectiveness has already taken a hit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Efforts made by the secretary to move the agency - but really, I think to undermine the agency - have just destroyed morale.

MORRIS: This former Economic Research Service employee asked that we not use his name because he could lose his current job. He says working at the agency was great until about a year and a half ago, when he says researchers began to fear tackling politically sensitive topics. Then Secretary Perdue pushed to take the agency out from under non-partisan oversight and placed it under his control. Finally, the surprise announcement to move it, along with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, out of Washington triggered a cascade of resignations.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I think it's had its intended effect. People have left. Morale is low. The agency will take a long time to recover from the damage that's been inflicted.

MORRIS: The Trump administration wanted staff reductions years ago. All three Trump budgets have proposed deep cuts to the agencies. Ricardo Salvador argues that's because objective research often clashes with political ideology. Economic Research Service studies, for instance, concluded that tax cuts championed by the administration would most benefit the richest farmers, and that nutrition programs that Trump wanted to cut are good for the economy.

SALVADOR: So the secretary is truly dealing with inconvenient facts by going to the source and eliminating them.

MORRIS: But people still working at the agencies are fighting back. Peter Winch works for the American Federation of Government Employees, a union that Economic Research Service employees just joined.

PETER WINCH: What they're trying to do is at least slow down, if not stop USDA's plan to relocate them outside of the Washington, D.C., area.

MORRIS: For his part, Senator Jerry Moran argues that farm research agencies can be both relocated and well supported. And he's helped to fight off efforts to cut ag research in the past. He says farmers, ranchers and policymakers can't make the best decisions without reliable Agriculture Department data. But that's exactly the problem critics have with a proposal to move the two research agencies. They say the USDA hasn't produced any data to support it. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.
Frank Morris
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