The United States Department of Agriculture plans to relocate its economists who focus on climate change, trade policy and food stamps away from Washington D.C. and into more rural parts of the country, according to reports by agency workers. Employees told Politico that they believe they were being punished for raising questions about the soundness of President Donald Trump’s policy initiatives.
Last year, agents working in the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) were told that they might have to relocate, but were given few details. Employees told Politico they think this was a scheme by Secretary Sonny Perdue who knew that most economists would not want to uproot their families and would instead voluntarily leave the agency. In March, the department officially began relocating employees, and by their count only 76 of the 279 people on staff were allowed to stay in Washington.
The list compiled by staff members and shared with Politico showed that the employees asked to move were working on controversial topics within the Trump administration like the impacts of climate change and tariffs, or on food stamp policy. Those who were allowed to stay in D.C. worked on issues like crop planting.
“These changes are more steps down the path to better service to our customers, and will help us fulfill our informal motto to ‘Do right and feed everyone,’” Perdue said in a statement. “We don’t undertake these relocations lightly, and we are doing it to improve performance and the services these agencies provide. We will be placing important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from Washington, D.C. We will be saving money for the taxpayers and improving our ability to retain more employees in the long run. And we are increasing the probability of attracting highly-qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities.”
But employees say that the decision to relocate economists came almost immediately after the ERS released a highly-publicized study that found the president’s tax plan would mostly aid wealthy farmers. “This was a clear politicization of the agency many of us loved for its non-partisan research and analysis,” a current employee told Politico.
Perdue has not decided where he will move employees but he is currently deciding between Kansas City, North Carolina‘s Research Triangle Park and a few areas of Indiana.
Economist Brian Stacy, who studied the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, left the agency in February because he said it would be too difficult to relocate his family. He told The Washington Post that his agency felt political pressure that “seemed to fit a pattern.” President Donald Trump made a budget request to cut funding for the ERS in half in 2019, he said, and “right after that, along came the relocation and this reorganization… I couldn’t help in the back of my mind to think that we were somehow being singled out.”
On Thursday, The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies approved $3.3 billion for agricultural research but prohibited the use of those funds for any relocation costs for moving the ERS.