WASHINGTON — Following a move in which fewer than 10% of staff members accepted invitations to relocate to new offices in Kansas City, the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been targeted by the Trump administration for a 27% cut in the fiscal 2021 budget. The president proposed an E.R.S. budget of $62 million for fiscal year 2021, which compared with $85.3 million authorized by Congress for fiscal 2020. The reduction contained in the president’s budget reflected proposed cuts in research, publications and staff.
While presidents’ budget proposals typically are considered dead on arrival when sent to Congress, they nevertheless reflect administration priorities and therefore may not be so easily dismissed. And in the case of the E.R.S., the Trump administration’s sustained efforts to trim the agency’s activities, budget and workforce, thwarted by Congress in previous budget cycles, largely were accomplished outside the budgeting process, by the U.S.D.A.’s administrative decision to relocate the bulk of the E.R.S. workforce from Washington to Kansas City.
As background to the relocation, President Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget released in January 2018 had called for a 48% reduction in funding for the agency. While Congress rejected the cut, the proposal sent tremors throughout the E.R.S. workforce and marked the beginning of an exodus of research economists from the agency, said Laura Dodson, vice-president of Local 3403 of the American Federation of Government Employees, the bargaining unit representing E.R.S. employees.
“Our agency has been budgeted for 330 employees, and in January 2018, we were staffed at about 320 or so,” Ms. Dodson said. “By the time Secretary Perdue in August 2018 announced we were going to be relocated outside Washington, D.C., we already had lost about 40 staff. By the time Secretary Perdue announced the relocation would be to Kansas City, we were down to around 230 people.
“One-hundred-eight-one staff were asked to move to Kansas City, but only 16 did so.”
A spokesman for the U.S.D.A. said as of the pay period ended Feb. 1, 2020, the E.R.S. had 122 positions occupied compared with the 329 authorized by Congress for fiscal year 2020. This included 40 employees on site in Kansas City, employees in Washington whose relocation dates were extended, and 66 employees permanently remaining in Washington, D.C.
The K.C. workforce includes the 16 individuals who transferred initially, a few workers with extended contracts who more recently transferred, and new hires.
The president’s proposed budget for fiscal 2021 includes funding to bring the Kansas City E.R.S. workforce up to 109 through “aggressive recruiting following significant relocation-related attrition.” The proposed budget also provides for retention of 78 positions in Washington. The U.S.D.A. proposed budget envisions, therefore, a total E.R.S. staff of 187 in fiscal 2021 compared with 122 currently and with funding providing for 329 employees authorized by Congress in the enacted fiscal 2020 budget.
In the wake of the relocation, some traditional activities of E.R.S. economists continued. The 66 staff members remaining in Washington include those who produce the commodity Outlook reports as well as the farm income team and the survey team, Ms. Dodson said. But E.R.S. research teams were eviscerated having lost most of their members, Ms. Dodson observed. Most lamentable, she commented, was the loss of economists with years or even decades of experience, equating to thousands of staff years, in long-term and specialized agricultural research that cannot be replicated anywhere else.
The president’s E.R.S. budget for fiscal 2021 would decrease funding for research on agricultural markets and trade, farms, conservation, and agricultural research and development by $11.3 million.
“E.R.S. will discontinue research relative to farm, conservation and trade policy, and on returns to investments in agricultural research and development,” the U.S.D.A.’s explanatory notes said. “E.R.S. will also discontinue its annual estimates of international food security for low- and middle-income countries and research on international development that supports this activity. At the proposed funding level, research and extramural agreements associated with special initiatives such as on research innovations for policy effectiveness, new energy sources (including bioenergy, renewable energy and shale oil and gas), local and regional food markets, beginning farmers and ranchers, invasive species, and markets for environmental services will be eliminated.”
The U.S.D.A. said core capital expenditures, including the Agricultural Resource Management Survey and private sector commodity data and intelligence will be maintained, but there may be a reduction in the frequency of commodity specific surveys and in the number of states for which state-level estimates will be developed.
The U.S.D.A. said the E.R.S. will continue to provide analysis and monthly newsletters to support participating in the U.S.D.A.’s Inter-Agency Commodity Estimate Committees and provide modeling and data related to the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Baseline Projections, but it will narrow its international research.
The U.S.D.A. also proposed an $8.4 million decrease in funding for research and analysis on food assistance, nutrition and diet quality, a $2 million decrease in funding for research on rural prosperity and well-being, and a $2.2 million decrease in funding for food safety research and analysis.