Washington Roundup – August 2018
By: Lowell Randel
Agriculture Committee Leaders Continue Farm Bill Conference Discussions
While most members of Congress are in their home states for August recess, leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees and their staffs are continuing discussions related to the 2018 Farm Bill. Work is ongoing to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions and committee staff have made considerable progress on less controversial issues. However, but big-ticket items such as nutrition policy remain a challenge. The first official meeting of the conferees is scheduled for September 5th, when lawmakers return from the August break. Committee leaders continue to strive for completion of the Farm Bill before the current authorities expire at the end of September.
ASAS is working with coalition partners to signal support for agricultural research and animal programs in the Farm Bill. ASAS joined 120 national and state organizations urging permanent funding for the National Animal Disease Preparedness and Response Program. The program is included in both the House and Senate versions and would establish a three-pronged program to deliver the sufficient development and timely deployment of all measures necessary to prevent, identify and rapidly respond to the potential catastrophic impacts that an animal disease outbreak would have on our country’s food security, export markets, and overall economic stability. ASAS has also signed letters supporting continued federal investment in the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and authorizing the AgriCorps program, which focuses on offering fellowships for U.S. ag educators who engage in opportunities to teach agriculture in other countries. ASAS will continue to work with its coalition partners as the Farm Bill process moves forward.
Senate Passes “Minibus” Appropriations Package Including Funds for USDA
On August 1st, the Senate passed a package of four appropriations bills for fiscal year 2019. The so-called “Minibus” includes funding for the Agriculture, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Interior Departments. The House has been on August recess since the passage of the “minibus” and it is unclear how it will treat the package of bills. The House Appropriations Committee has approved individual bills for each of the four Departments represented in the package but has not considered any of them on the House floor.
This the second such “minibus” appropriations package passed by the Senate in an effort to avoid missing the September 30th deadline for funding bills. The Senate is currently working on a final “minibus” package that would complete its work on initial passage of appropriations legislation for FY 2019.
USDA Announces Relocation Plans for NIFA and ERS
On August 9th, USDA announced its intention to relocate the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) outside the national capital region and to realign ERS under the Office of the Chief Economist. USDA stated the following benefits as rationale for making the changes:
- To improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities. USDA has experienced significant turnover in these positions, and it has been difficult to recruit employees to the Washington, DC area, particularly given the high cost of living and long commutes.
- To place these important USDA resources closer to many of stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from the Washington, DC area.
- To benefit the American taxpayers. There will be significant savings on employment costs and rent, which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets.
USDA has also published a notice in the Federal Register asking for expressions of interest in potential locations for NIFA and ERS. Responses are due by September 15th.
The proposed moves of NIFA and ERS have been met with questions and concerns by the research and economics communities. The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) issued the following statement:
“The Board on Agriculture Assembly of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities appreciates Secretary Perdue’s strong commitment to rural America and his ongoing efforts to streamline USDA and bring its programs and services closer to customers. However, we are concerned with the proposed move of NIFA and ERS outside of the D.C. metro area. In particular, moving NIFA – the premier agricultural science entity in the world and the linchpin of the 156-year agricultural research, education, and extension partnership between the federal government and the land-grant university system – raises important questions that need to be addressed before further executive action is taken.”
APLU also sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue asking for clarifications on the following issues:
- What is the funding impact of a move outside of the National Capital Region, to include employee buyouts and relocation costs?
- How will a move impact NIFA’s ability to recruit, hire, and retain qualified staff?
- Can NIFA be considered to stand on equal footing with its science agency peers if located outside of Washington, DC?
Other groups have also reacted with questions about the rationale and impacts of the move. For example, the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR), sent a letter to the leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee requesting that issues related to moving NIFA be addressed during the confirmation hearing of REE Under Secretary Nominee Scott Hutchins. A confirmation hearing for Hutchins has yet to be scheduled.
Economists have been vocal in their opposition to realigning ERS within the Office of the Chief Economist and moving the agency outside DC. Critics of the plan argue that the move will be a substantial blow to the quality and timeliness of ERS work. It is expected that many current ERS experts will not relocate. The advantages of being located near other USDA agencies and fellow federal statistics agencies would be lost. Some are also concerned that ERS could lose some of its integrity and independence by being connected to a more political office within USDA.
USDA has indicated its desire to complete the relocation process quickly. The Department’s stated goal is to begin the transition process early next year and complete the relocation by the end of 2019.