Hoyer, Norton Ask Inspector General to Investigate USDA Proposal to Relocate Two Agencies Out of the National Capital Region

WASHINGTON, DC– Today, Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (MD-05) and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong requesting that she examine the legality, the rationale, and the process used to develop the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposal to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, currently located in the nation’s capital, by the end of 2019, and to reorganize ERS under the Office of the Secretary, a political office.  Nearly 700 federal employees could be affected by the relocation.

In their letter, Hoyer and Norton wrote, “We are deeply concerned that the process used to develop USDA’s relocation proposal may have omitted critical considerations.  It is unclear whether a robust cost-benefit analysis was completed to justify relocation of two vital federal agencies.  In fact, the proposed relocation may result in considerable harm to the USDA…Given this sweeping change in prior policy, we request that you examine whether the USDA has the legal and budget authority to execute the relocation and reorganization of these two important agencies without additional authority being provided by Congress.  We also request a determination regarding the sufficiency of the cost-benefit analysis used to pursue this drastic change in policy.”

The full letter is below and is available here.

The Honorable Phyllis K. Fong
Inspector General
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Room 117-W Jamie Whitten Bldg.
1400 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20250

Dear Inspector General Fong:

We write to express our concern regarding the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recent reorganization and relocation proposal that would move the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) out of the Washington, D.C. region.  The current headquarters facility for NIFA is in General Services Administration (GSA) leased space in Washington, D.C.  Essential questions regarding the legality of USDA’s proposal, the rationale for the potential move and the process used to develop this proposal remain unanswered, and we ask that you conduct a detailed analysis of each of these issues.

The USDA issued a Notice of Request for Expression of Interest (RFEI) for Potential Sites to relocate ERS and NIFA on August 15, 2018, but did so without a clear determination that the USDA has the legal authority to relocate an agency without Congressional approval or the budget authority to acquire the real estate necessary to execute the move of these two agencies.  In a highly unusual decision, the USDA decided to issue its RFEI under its own authority rather than under the leasing authority of GSA and stated its view that the scope of the RFEI encompassed the entire country.  However, even if the USDA’s leasing authority would provide adequate legal authority for a long-term lease agreement, a much larger question surrounds whether the USDA has the budget authority to proceed with this move.  Section 717(a) of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-141) prohibits the expenditure of funds for the relocation of an office or employees or the reorganization of offices, programs or activities unless the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are given written notice and grant approval 30 days before funds are reprogrammed for those purposes.  USDA’s plan, which has not been approved by appropriators, would both relocate employees and reorganize an office by moving ERS into the Office of the Secretary.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report that makes clear that several federal agencies have incorrectly determined that their independent real estate lease authority grants them the ability to sign long-term lease agreements without accompanying budget authority.  We believe that the USDA may be similarly mistaken.  On August 30, 2018, Democratic members of the House Appropriations Committee wrote to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue expressing their concern about the move and requested more information from the USDA about the justification for these actions.  We share these concerns and believe that a proposal of this magnitude should not be allowed to move forward while such fundamental questions remain unresolved.

The USDA has cited three reasons for its proposal to move ERS and NIFA away from the nation’s capital and has supplied insufficient evidence to support the accuracy of those concerns.  USDA Secretary Perdue has specifically cited the USDA’s inability to attract and retain highly qualified staff, a need to place USDA resources closer to stakeholders and to reduce costs for employees and real estate.  However, as recently as January 9, 2018, GSA submitted a prospectus on behalf of the USDA proposing the continued housing of NIFA in Washington, DC, USDA’s home since the 1800s and the hub of a workforce that ranks among the most highly educated in the nation.  Since that submission, the USDA has provided no evidence that it has had difficulty recruiting and retaining ERS and NIFA staff.  Similarly, the USDA has not provided the rationale for why ERS and NIFA, as opposed to other USDA agencies, need to move close to stakeholders and leave the Washington, D.C. region.  Moreover, the USDA has also not indicated why it has pursued a relocation strategy independent of GSA, the federal agency tasked with providing real estate services to other federal agencies.

Finally, we are deeply concerned that the process used to develop USDA’s relocation proposal may have omitted critical considerations.  It is unclear whether a robust cost-benefit analysis was completed to justify relocation of two vital federal agencies.  In fact, the proposed relocation may result in considerable harm to the USDA.  A number of press reports have indicated that USDA officials believe that many ERS and NIFA officials will choose not to relocate and that this potential relocation could deprive the agencies of many of their top economists and scientists with specialized knowledge.

Given this sweeping change in prior policy, we request that you examine whether the USDA has the legal and budget authority to execute the relocation and reorganization of these two important agencies without additional authority being provided by Congress.  We also request a determination regarding the sufficiency of the cost-benefit analysis used to pursue this drastic change in policy.

We appreciate your attention to these concerns, and request a reply within thirty days.

Sincerely,

Congressman Steny H. Hoyer
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

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