Congress

New bill would hit the brakes on agency relocations

Legislation introduced in the House and Senate July 1 would require agencies to obtain and consider detailed proof of a proposed relocation’s advantages prior to executing the move.

The Conducting Oversight to Secure Transparency (COST) of Relocations Act requires a federal agency to conduct a cost-benefit analysis for any planned relocation that would result in at least 5 percent or 100 employees being moved outside of their current commuting area.

That analysis — which should include the anticipated outcomes of the move, the metrics by which those outcomes will be measured and the engagement with employees — must then be reported to the relevant inspector general, who will then submit their findings to the relevant congressional committees.

The bill comes in response to the Trump administration’s efforts to relocate employees at the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture, as well as the relocation of the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters.

“Last year, the Trump administration decided to move ERS and NIFA out of the National Capital Region without any real justification. The move ran contrary to the best interests of the agencies, undermined their missions to support essential research for American farmers, and ultimately wasted taxpayer dollars. This legislation would help protect federal workers and agencies from the political whims of President Trump or any future president and ensure they can continue their service on behalf of Americans,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who introduced the Senate bill.

Opponents criticized the ERS and NIFA moves as a covert attempt to get rid of federal employees that are unwilling to make the move, a position that was confirmed by then-White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

“The Trump administration’s hollowing out of our federal agencies and attacks on our civil service have left us with an alarming void of expertise that will undermine the work of our government scientists and researchers for years to come,” said Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., who introduced the House bill.

“The COST of Relocations Act would shine a light on agency relocations that are nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on scientific integrity and provide the transparency and accountability that was sorely missing when the Trump administration took a wrecking ball to ERS and NIFA. Requiring a comprehensive and public cost-benefit analysis of agency relocations prevents partisan efforts to undermine the mission of our federal agencies and ensures taxpayer dollars are spent appropriately.”

Congress itself has been divided on the merits of moving federal offices outside of the Washington, D.C.-region. Supporters of relocation claim that it would spread the wealth of federal jobs to other parts of the country, while cutting costs on office space and bringing feds closer to the people they serve.

Two Republican senators introduced legislation in October 2019 that would move about 90 percent of the workforce at the headquarters for 10 federal agencies to locations outside Washington.

But opponents of relocation claim that such initiatives often take agency experts away from the federal seat of power, making testimony and collaboration more difficult and forcing feds to choose between their homes and their jobs.

“Instead of prudent financial decision making, the motivation seems to be getting rid of federal employees and silencing science and research the administration finds inconvenient,” said American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley, in the news release on the bill.

In particular, some of the moves have targeted research agencies that engage less frequently with the public than other departments.

“Last year we watched with dismay as the Trump administration abruptly decided to relocate two of USDA’s research agencies. We now all plainly see what damage it did — massive staff losses, disrupted and delayed research and grants to universities — it’s just chaos. Something needed to be done to prevent this from happening again,” said Rebecca Boehm, economist for the Food and Environment program with the Union of Concerned Scientists, in the news release.

Members of Congress have tried to block specific relocations through legislation, but the relocation process has generally been faster than legislative action can keep up with. This bill would instead put a higher burden on any agency that plans a relocation in the future.

The legislation would also require agencies to publicly release the results of their relocation analyses.

“The COST Act will help ensure Congress and the American people have the information they need to analyze the plans of federal agencies before relocating across the country,” said Tim Stretton, policy analyst at the Project On Government Oversight, in the news release.

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