A top Agriculture Department research official told a Senate committee that two agencies slated for a contested move out of Washington can recover from an exodus of employees and denied media reports the department has hidden agency documents on climate change.
Scott Hutchins, deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics, said Thursday that many employees eligible to move to the Kansas City metropolitan area with either the Economic Research Service or National Institute of Food and Agriculture have notified USDA that they will stay in Washington. Employees who have agreed to move have until Sept. 30 to make the trek west, where the agencies will operate out of a temporary space until USDA finds a long-term landlord.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a search for new homes for the agencies in August 2018, before he appointed Hutchins to the deputy post.
Hutchins said the workers will be offered jobs elsewhere in the department as the USDA moves ahead with shifting the agencies to sites near Kansas City. He said the agencies will rebuild with new hires from agriculture researchers, economists and other professionals in the region, and with additional funding the USDA plans to provide from the projected savings of moving to an area with lower rental costs than the District of Columbia.
Hutchins said leaders of both agencies are scheduled to meet Friday with the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing workers, to discuss the relocation and possible work arrangements like telecommuting until USDA has signed a lease for new office space. A total of 547 employees from both agencies were eligible to move.
His answers probably did little to tamp down opposition by congressional Democrats, former USDA research officials and research groups who argue the USDA has never fully explained the need for the move and worry that rebuilding the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture could take years.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the committee’s top Democrat, said 63 percent of employees eligible to move have declined to do so, leaving USDA to replace nearly an entire workforce. She said the department “is throwing away knowledge.”
Democrats Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania also questioned the move. The Democrats cited reports by Politico that USDA has suppressed reports by the agencies on climate change.
Hutchins said the department has not hampered research on climate issues, saying that there are hundreds of those reports in the public domain and that the department is on track to produce 1,200 reports from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture in 2019.
“Recent media reports of suppression of climate change research simply could not be further from the truth,” he said. “USDA has no policy, no practice, and no intent to minimize, discredit, deemphasize, or otherwise influence the excellent climate-based science of any agency or partner institution.”
He said a climate science plan identified in a recent news story as a suppressed report is an internal document that serves as a blueprint for USDA climate research.
“No problem with it being released to the public because it really signals very clearly all the work that is being done,” Hutchins said.
In a statement issued after the hearing, AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr., said rebuilding the agencies will be costly.
“The agency has admitted it is planning to rely on more expensive contractors to replace the work now performed by federal employees. Instead of saving money, relocating these two USDA agencies from D.C. to Kansas City will be extremely costly to the American taxpayer because the administration has outrageously overestimated the cost of keeping the agencies in the DC area,” Cox said.