The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan to move a majority of its employees at the Economic Research Service and National Institute for Food and Agriculture from their location in Washington, D.C., to a new office in Kansas City may have violated provisions of federal budget law, according to the agency’s Inspector General.
The IG’s report, issued Aug. 5, explains that the Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2018 stipulates that agencies cannot realign or relocate offices without first notifying congressional budget committees 30 days in advance of reprogramming appropriated funds and then obtaining approval from Congress.
According to the report, the agency obligated approximately $169,655 to hire a private contractor to evaluate which location USDA should choose to relocate the agencies to.
“The Inspector General investigation clearly states that USDA’s efforts to relocate the Economic Research Service and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture violate provisions of the Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2018. It is extremely disappointing, but not surprising in this administration, that the USDA General Counsel argued, inconsistent with positions it had taken previously, that USDA can ignore those provisions,” Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said in a joint statement.
“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. USDA must follow the law, period. It ought not change interpretations when it is convenient for the administration or the secretary at any given moment.”
But USDA’s response to the report argues that provision requiring agencies to gain approval from Congress before a relocation is itself a violation of the Constitution.
The agency has not always held this view. In Bread for the City, Inc. v. USDA, a case decided by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in late 2017, the agency argued that it could not reprogram funds to purchase and distribute additional food under the Emergency Food Assistance Program because they did not have congressional approval to do so.
“Therefore, the Department’s current and prior positions regarding the applicability of ‘committee approval’ provisions, such as those found in Section 717(a) [of the appropriations act], are not consistent. To reach management decision on this recommendation and to ensure consistent treatment going forward, the department needs to communicate, in writing, this change of interpretation to USDA leaders at the sub-cabinet and agency levels,” the report said.
But some members of Congress, who first requested the IG investigation, were dissatisfied with the breadth of the findings.
“We are disappointed that the Inspector General’s report fails to address numerous other concerns raised with the proposed relocation,” Hoyer and Holmes Norton said.
“These include that the relocation may have been driven by the desire to retaliate against agencies producing analyses on SNAP benefits, climate change and tax policy that contradict the political messaging of the Trump administration; that the stated rationale for the proposed move is to improve retention of employees, but that more than half of the current employees have indicated they will leave the agencies because of the relocation; that the site selection process appears to have been biased against keeping these agencies in the national capital region; and that the proposed realignment of ERS appears to be inconsistent with previous policies designed to keep agencies free from the appearance of political interference.”
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney recently celebrated the relocation’s impact on employee retention, calling the resulting departures a “wonderful” way to streamline what he described as part of “the swamp.”
The report date for the agencies to transition to Kansas City is set for Sept. 30, giving the agency and Congress little time to resolve the disagreement.