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October 10, 2018

Opposition Grows to Moving USDA’s ERS Out of Washington, DC

 |  By: Jim Dickrell

Fifty-six former U.S. government officials who served under both Democratic and Republican administrations, dating back five decades, have written to Congress opposing the move of USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) out of Washington, DC.


The Trump Administration has proposed moving ERS out of Washington to save money, retain employees and be closer to ag constituents. But the signers of the letter say such a move would have just the opposite effect. The letter was signed by former, high ranking government officials dating back to 1965 through 2017.


"USDA's justification for this upheaval of evidence-based policymaking is completely lacking," says Katherine Smith Evans, ERS administrator under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Adds Susan Offutt, ERS administrator under Clinton and George W. Bush: "The USDA's evidence-lite justification for USDA to so radically uproot its world-class research, economics and statistical agencies is the reason the Economic Research Service should be kept in Washington, DC, and in the USDA research arm. We need its objective and respected analysis to support evidence-based policymaking in our $1 trillion food, agriculture and rural economy.”

In a news release issued Tuesday, the American Statistical Associated noted that USDA’s numbers of employee departures were inflated by including summer interns, who after their internships are completed. ASA noted that moving ERS away from Washington will likely create a brain drain, as economists and statisticians elect to retire or choose to stay in Washing to keep their families in their homes and schools.

“Major relocation of a significant port of the staff will result in many separations and a disastrous loss of expertise, which could take years to recover,” says John Lee, ERS Administrator under Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Others questioned how moving the agency out of Washington would bring it closer to farmers or organizations which serve them. "It's hard to imagine Florida, Georgia and other southern producers benefiting from USDA moving their research and economic statistical agencies to Fargo or Topeka or anywhere outside of DC," says Gale Buchanan, USDA chief scientist under George W. Bush and Georgia native. "Like it or not, ERS becomes less relevant outside of Washington."

Following are the four summary points in the letter to Congress:

  1. Retaining staff expertise. While current professional staff members will be offered the opportunity to retain their positions, it is anticipated that many will not move. ERS has already lost a respected and effective administrator. Staff attrition will dilute valuable organizational knowledge and expertise and damage established networks, even if newly vacated positions are filled.
  2. Continuing valuable collaborations. ERS is one of the principal federal statistical agencies, all of which are in the DC area. ERS has an integrated approach to its broad research portfolio, in part due to its ability to collaborate. Locating it far from its collaborators, both within and outside the USDA, will severely limit its contributions to important activities such as the Agricultural Resource Management Survey, which is carried out in cooperation with the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
  3. Maintaining visibility with policymakers. ERS currently responds efficiently and effectively to requests from Congress and other agencies. ERS provides timely and relevant economic research and analysis to inform important policy decisions. Removing ERS from its proximity to key consumers means policy decisions may be made without the best analysis available, to the detriment of some of our nation’s most vulnerable communities.
  4. Risks to independence and credibility. The federal statistical agencies provide relevant, accurate, and timely information. Removing ERS from its position in the Research Education and Economics Mission Area to place it under the USDA chief economist jeopardizes its independence as a research agency and increases the potential for interference in the direction, design, analysis, and release of studies and reports. It threatens the independence and credibility necessary for a federal statistical agency to function objectively.

Read a copy of the letter here along with the list of signatories.