USDA IG says relocation plans may violate laws

Editorial credit: Mark Van Scyoc / USDA hq image number 475579099

An oversight report states that the Department of Agriculture may have skirted appropriations laws in its push to move two research agencies from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City region.

The USDA Office of Inspector General's report on plans to relocate the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) found that numerous requirements of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 were not fulfilled by USDA in its push to reorganize and move the agencies.

Under the spending bill, USDA was charged with obtaining congressional approval before reprogramming funds to support the relocations and meeting certain deadlines. According to the OIG report, congressional approval was not provided.

USDA has announced its intention to go through with the move, and agency General Counsel Stephen Alexander Vaden pushed back on the claims of the report in his reply.

The USDA, he said, "takes the position that the 'committee approval' provisions of [the spending measure] are unconstitutional and are without legal effect," citing Supreme Court precedent.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who pushed for the IG probe into the USDA reorganization, slammed USDA's response to the report and urged Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to "halt this misguided relocation process."

"USDA must follow the law, period. It ought not change interpretations when it is convenient for the administration or the secretary at any given moment," Hoyer and Holmes Norton said in a joint statement.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) chimed in on Twitter. "Not only does this relocation push out talented federal researchers and undermine crucial agricultural and environmental work, but according to the Inspector General, it also may be illegal. This Administration is not above the law and must answer to Congress for this," Warner wrote.

The report coincided with recent comments from the White House chief of staff that suggested that trimming the federal workforce was a benefit of the USDA research agencies' move.

In remarks at an Aug. 2 South Carolina Republican party dinner aired by C-SPAN, Mick Mulvaney celebrated the exits of federal workers at ERS and NIFA who were unwilling to relocate to the Kansas City region.

"I don't know if you saw the news the other day, but the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] moved two offices out of Washington, D.C…. Guess what happened? More than half the people quit. Now it's nearly impossible to fire a federal worker, I know that because a lot of them work for me, and I've tried and I can't do it. But simply saying to the people, you know what, we're going to take you outside the bubble, outside this liberal haven, and move you into the real part of the country and they quit. What a wonderful way to streamline government and do what we haven't been able to do for a long time," Mulvaney said.

The stated rationale of the move of ERS and NIFA to the Kansas City region was to bring key services closer to customers.

"Relocation will help ensure USDA is the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and move our resources closer to our customers," Perdue said in May. "Our commitment to the public and our employees is to continue to be transparent as we proceed with our analysis."

The USDA press office did not respond to an email from FCW seeking comment on Mulvaney's remarks.

Union chief J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said that Mulvaney's comments "confirm what our union has been saying all along: the administration's decision to transfer hundreds of USDA jobs from D.C. isn’t about helping federal employees do their jobs better or delivering better services to the American taxpayer. Their goal is to drive out hardworking and dedicated civil servants and silence the parts of the agencies’ research that the administration views as inconvenient."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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