Mulvaney Admits To Ulterior Motive For Suspicious Move Of USDA Experts

White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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The journalist Michael Kinsley famously defined a “gaffe” as when a politician tells the truth. Mick Mulvaney seems to have gone and told the truth this weekend.

At a GOP fundraiser back home in South Carolina on Friday, the White House chief of staff celebrated a decision announced recently by USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Hundreds of government economists and researchers based in Washington, D.C., the secretary said in June, were being given a choice: Move to Kansas City, or get out. They had 33 days to decide.

“Guess what happened?” Mulvaney asked his audience. “More than half the people quit.”

The stark choice offered by Perdue, and Mulvaney’s celebration of its fallout, capped a year-long, slow-motion panic inside two small federal agencies.

An inspector general’s investigation was launched in November into the legality of the relocation, and reported Monday that Perdue may have improperly circumvented Congress. In the intervening months, experts in agricultural economics, food security, nutrition and scores of other fields watched as their jobs, once backed by bipartisan support in administration after administration, became representative of the “swamp” President Donald Trump had been elected to drain.

The relocation, Mulvaney said, offered proof he was draining it.

“Now, it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker,” he continued Friday, citing his own experiences. But by simply saying to workers that they would have to move “out into the real part of the country,” the agency had achieved its goal.

“What a wonderful way to streamline government, and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time,” Mulvaney said. Applause rolled across the Silver Elephant fundraising gala.

Mulvaney was right about the numbers. According to what the USDA has told news outlets, and what a union leader told TPM Tuesday, more than half of USDA employees forced to choose whether to relocate said they would not.

At least for now, that means they’ll lose their jobs on Sept. 30, when they are expected to report to work in “real” America.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 3403 President Dave Verardo said in an interview with TPM that he believed Mulvaney also correctly characterized the administration’s motivations.

“To use a metaphor from The Wizard of Oz, because we’re talking about Kansas, the curtain has been pulled back and the Wizard is out there just flailing around,” Verardo said. “The real reason is to reduce the federal workforce.”

“They’ve never been so explicit,” he added. “Not even the secretary of agriculture has articulated that in public.”

[READ: Draft Termination Notice To USDA Experts Who Refused Rapid Move To KC]

The USDA, in announcing the relocation, repeatedly stressed that it wanted to “improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff” — Kansas City boasts “access to arts, culture, and a thriving food scene,” Perdue told employees when he announced the destination. The goal, the USDA explained on its website, was to move federal workers closer to “stakeholders,” and save on employment costs and rent, “which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run.”

There was nothing about slashing staff. If anything, it was the opposite. The USDA cited “significant turnover” in D.C. as an argument for the move, noting that land-grant universities could offer qualified new employees. (Later, the American Statistical Association noted that the agency may have overemphasized that point by counting summer interns, who naturally have “a 100 percent attrition rate.”)

Employees at both the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the two agencies facing a move to Kansas City, voted overwhelmingly to unionize with the AFGE in May and June, respectively, in what the Washington Post called an “apparent revolt” against the move.

An inspector general’s report released Monday pointed to yet another issue with the move to Kansas City: It might violate the 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act.

Though the USDA secretary has the authority to relocate ERS and NIFA, the report found, he might not have the authority to spend money to do so without congressional approval.

The spending bill, investigators said, “requires the Department to receive approval from Congress prior to the expenditure of funds for the relocation of an office or its employees.”

That approval was never given, and many in Congress have repeatedly raised concerns about moving the agencies outside of D.C., especially given their responsibility to keep lawmakers abreast of research developments, and to work closely with other agencies in the capital.

Congress also did not give its approval for the $340,000 private contract USDA signed to help it narrow down its potential relocation sites, the report said.

“The Secretary must follow the will of Congress and refrain from moving forward with the relocation until Congress approves the use of funds for those purposes as directed by the fiscal year 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act,” Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), who requested the investigation, said in response to its findings.

In October, former government officials including multiple former chief scientists — a role that’s currently unfilled at the USDA — and statisticians raised concerns about the relocation.

In a letter to Congress, they wrote that the ERS move “poses risks to the quality and relevance of the information” from the agency. ERS is ranked as number three in the world of institutions in the field of agricultural economics,” the letter stated. “This proposal puts a world-renowned research agency at risk.”

Skeptics also said it reeked of retaliation from the Trump administration against research that political appointees didn’t like. Verardo told TPM that some ERS employees’ publications haven’t made it out of the agency, and others’ only did after extensive edits, redactions and other challenges.

ERS studies everything from climate change to food stamps. And NIFA doles out millions of dollars in grants to scientists nationwide. That agency faced considerable backlash from conservatives last year after it published a “best practices” document for LGBT students in 4-H, the youth program partially funded by the federal government.

The USDA didn’t respond to TPM’s questions about Mulvaney’s comment Tuesday, nor did the White House.

But in a statement to TPM, the agency disagreed, loudly, with the inspector general’s finding that it lacked funding authorization to move to Kansas City, calling the section of the appropriations law the report cited “unconstitutional.”

Since the Inspector General affirms the Department has the legal authority and we do not agree with the unconstitutional budgetary provision, this case is closed,” a spokesperson for the agency said. 

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