“WHAT A wonderful way to streamline government,” said acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney at a gala last week, referring to the Agriculture Department’s plan to move two of its science agencies out of the D.C. area to the Kansas City region. In celebrating this controversial decision, Mr. Mulvaney laid bare the thinly veiled motivations behind uprooting researchers: not efficiency, but to drive talented workers out.
Since the relocation announcement in June, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has defended the controversial proposal, arguing that relocation will bring researchers closer to the subjects of their research and save the agency millions in employment costs and rent. But the haste and amateurishness of the process raised suspicions about true motives. And, now, Mr. Mulvaney has confirmed those suspicions by celebrating the gutting of the Economic Research Service, a federal statistics agency, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which oversees grant money for agricultural research. The motivation fits with the administration’s broader hostility toward experts, science and honest data.
In June, a Politico analysis found that the Trump administration barred dozens of climate-change-related investigations from being publicized. Politico also discovered that the research service issued news releases on only two studies directly related to climate change — both of which were favorable to the meat industry.
Even if relocation were justifiable, the USDA’s handling of the process has, so far, been deplorable. The more than 500 agency employees affected by the move were given 33 days to decide between their career and the lives they had established in the District. Approximately two-thirds chose resignation over reassignment. The loss of talent and institutional knowledge creates an irreparable tear in the fabric of the agency — and an entirely foreseeable one. If the USDA’s plan was to “drain the swamp,” as Mr. Mulvaney put it, then it certainly is succeeding — if by swamp, as Post columnist Catherine Rampell wrote, they mean civil service expertise. But if the department wants to carry out its true mission of helping rural America, it should rethink this move.
Research by the USDA is vital to farmers. As economic challenges mount with the ongoing trade war with China, and as climate change poses a growing threat to farmlands worldwide, the work by the ERS and NIFA is indispensable. They not only help farmers improve efficiency and productivity but also help smooth access to international markets.
The relocation is not a done deal. The USDA’s watchdog, the Office of Inspector General, published a report this month that challenges the relocation, which is meant to be completed by Sept. 30. By acting without budgetary approval from Congress, the USDA may have violated the 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act. Rather than waiting for a judicial rebuke, the department should cancel the relocation now.