From The New Food Economy August 20th, 2018
by Sam Bloch
Last Tuesday, staffers at the Economic Research Service (ERS), the research arm of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), were called to a town hall meeting, where departmental leadership gave further details on what had been announced the week prior: The office was losing its independent status in the agriculture department, and being moved under the Office of the Chief Economist. It would also be moved out of Washington, D.C., likely to a Midwest location, by the end of next year.
The announcement of the move, which is expected to lead to mass buyouts and early retirements, took many in the agency by surprise. Indeed, ERS economists I contacted said veteran staffers intend to stay in Washington and find employment elsewhere, rather than move outside the Beltway.
“We’re finding out about this just as you are,” Howard Elitzak, a food markets economist, said when I reached him by phone. He declined to comment further, calling the move a “tenuous” situation.
What does ERS do, exactly? The agency of approximately 300 employees conducts a broad range of research on the American agricultural economy, issuing monthly commodity forecasts and trend reports on global trade, rural economics, food insecurity, and the changing face of family farms, among others. The agency’s releases are fundamental for policymaking, used by members of Congress and the office of the agriculture secretary, and a go-to source for reporters like me.
In his announcement, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue described the agency move, one that also includes the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)—the agency responsible for allocating research funding at land-grant universities—as a cost-saving measure. Indeed, President Trump’s last budget called for a 50-percent slash in funding for ERS. This follows a year of significant reorganizations in the agriculture department, and a culling of thousands of employees—more than in any other federal department.
Some observers say what’s happening to ERS is no ordinary belt-tightening. Since 1994, when ERS was first separated from the Office of the Chief Economist, the agency’s research has been seen as independent, objective, and crucially non-political within the agriculture department. Returning it to the chief economist’s office could potentially dissolve the “firewall” between the scientific and political arms of the department. Joseph Glauber, a former chief economist, disputes that assessment, telling Government Executive that the office is “objective.”
Others, including current ERS economists, see the move out of D.C., and the shrinking size, as consistent with actions of an administration that has been notoriously hostile toward scientific and research findings. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that an administration led by a president who’s been known to revoke security clearances from officials who’ve been critical of him, would also be happy to move a government office that puts out research that isn’t totally aligned with White House messaging—or policymaking—a little out of its way.
“ERS researchers cannot see a justification for the move,” says an ERS economist who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “ERS’s purpose is to provide research integrity, statistical analysis, and valuable information for policymakers in the capitol. Can moving to the Midwest justify our purpose, from that perspective?”
Put another way: “There are 16 agencies at USDA. Why these two? And they’re both science- and statistics-based?” Ann Bartuska, a former acting undersecretary for research, education, and economics at USDA, told Politico.
Take, for example, what ERS has found about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). Farm bill negotiations ahead of the vote, which is expected at the end of September, have been held hostage over Republican efforts to push for stricter work requirements. Leaders have publically said—as has the president—that SNAP use is out of control, and as an anti-poverty program it’s failing because the number of Americans who rely on it is higher than ever.
Republican messaging is flatly contested by ERS. In a recent, peer-reviewed report—ERS studies are all peer-reviewed—researchers found that participation and federal spending on the program have dropped every year since 2013. Last year, those rates fell by 5 percent and 4 percent, respectively. (As of early August, participation sat around 41 million—more than a million fewer participants than the program had in 2017.)
See the rest of the article Here: https://newfoodeconomy.org/usda-economic-research-service-ers-reorganization/