After 30 years at the USDA studying the agriculture industry, James MacDonald “knows everything about it,” one colleague said.
“It’s probably fair to say that I’m a leading expert on the organization of U.S. agriculture,” MacDonald conceded over the phone.
A branch chief at the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), MacDonald said he regularly gets calls from grower groups, government agencies, and industry organizations, all asking, essentially, “Help me understand how the economics of the poultry industry works.”
MacDonald represents the kind of veteran, institutional knowledge the USDA is losing as scores of expert economists and researchers leave the department rather than uproot and move from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City in a controversial relocation. Heightening suspicions that the relocation plan is a poorly disguised, politically motivated “purge” of federal workers, MacDonald and hundreds of other experts were given only 33 days to decide whether to make the move.
MacDonald says he’ll retire early on Sept. 27, the last day his job is scheduled to exist in DC.
“I’ve got a lot to get done,” he said, sounding slightly resigned.
Still unknown: the future home state of relocated employees. Secretary Sonny Perdue referred only to the “Kansas City Region” in his letter announcing the destination, without specifying whether that meant Kansas or Missouri.
Also unknown, and a source of considerable anxiety among policy makers, farmers and researchers alike: What happens when half of an agency, including lots of senior staffers with families, friends and other commitments in Washington, D.C., can’t move 1,000 miles away on short notice?
MacDonald has some idea. Ticking off research areas, he sounds as if he’s describing battlefield casualties.
Genetically engineered seeds? “I don’t have any of those people anymore, they’re gone. We’re not going to be reporting, we’re not going to be doing research on it.” Precision agriculture, an “exploding” area of interest? “Basically just about all the people I have associated with doing that are gone.” Soil conservation practices? “We’ve lost all the junior people in that area.”
The raw data provided by farmer surveys will still exist, he says, but “the brains behind them, writing the questionnaires and doing the analyses, that’s all gone.”
It’s not just farming: ERS studies everything from food stamps to climate change to global trade, informing policymakers of the real world effects their actions have on Americans’ everyday lives. Another USDA agency, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, faces an identical move, and an identical loss of hundreds of years of collective experience.
The brain drain at ERS prompted by the rapid relocation prompted loud protests from former USDA leadership, members of Congress and farming interests. But Perdue was steadfast, pushing the move even as employees voted overwhelming to unionize, in a move union members described as an attempt to have a seat at the table.
Perdue and others at the USDA said the move was meant to “improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff,” move closer to stakeholders and cut costs.
That was a bunch of “folksy bullshit,” one USDA economist affected by the relocation told TPM.
Indeed, comments from White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney at a fundraiser on Friday seemed to confirm as much.
“It’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker,” Mulvaney said. But after USDA forced them to move to “out into the real part of the country,” more than half of them said they would leave their jobs.
“What a wonderful way to streamline government,” he said.
Even before those remarks, Mulvaney’s drive to downsize was less a conspiracy theory “a more of an open secret,” ERS economist Laura Dodson said.
The White House had previously proposed slashing the ERS budget in half, a proposal Congress summarily rejected.
When the administration couldn’t accomplish cutting the agency that way, Dodson said, they turned to relocation.
Indeed, even for those inclined to consider a move to Kansas City, something smells of sabotage. Between Mulvaney’s comments, the pace at which the relocation is being carried out, and the recklessness alleged by many employees at the USDA’s handling of the move, several affected employees said they felt targeted.
When the news of a proposed relocation first broke a year ago, MacDonald observed, “people didn’t believe that this group would be as ruthless as they are.”
As plans came into view, whatever meager Republican opposition there was in Congress melted away.
“This has been done so haphazardly, with such disregard for how, in good conscience and good faith, you relocate people and an organization,” said Vince Crawley, who edits ERS’ online research magazine. “That’s what I think has taken most people aback.”
Moving plans are vague, employees said. The only known destination in Kansas City is a temporary USDA office space. In August, on the same day Perdue announced the relocation proposal, the ERS administrator of seven years, Mary Bohman, was reassigned without explanation to another agency in the department.
For employees who’d spent years or even decades at ERS, it all felt like a rug being pulled out from under them.
“I sometimes see reporting of ‘ERS is doing this’ or ‘ERS is doing that,’” Crawley observed. No, he said, “this is happening to ERS.”
Some have held out hope that a USDA inspector general investigation could stop the relocation. Responding to requests from Congress, the inspector general launched a probe in November into the legality of the move.
On Monday, the resulting report found that while Perdue had the authority to move the office, he might not have had the authority to spend money on it without congressional authorization. The report made headlines, but it’s unclear if it will keep ERS in Washington.
ERS employees affected by the move worry that they are a “canary in the coal mine,” as one economist put it — a test case for future relocations that slash the size of government — or that, as Mulvaney bragged, “drain the swamp.”
Dodson called it a “test case.”
“If they can carry this out,” she wondered aloud, “what’s to stop them from doing this on a larger scale to another agency?”