The Trump administration failed to follow budget law when it plowed ahead with a plan to uproot hundreds of Washington, D.C.-based Agriculture Department employees and require them to move to the Kansas City area, the agency’s inspector general found.
The relocation spearheaded by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has created turmoil inside two USDA agencies, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which produce valuable agricultural research that policymakers and the private sector rely on. Many economists and researchers have already chosen to quit rather than start new lives halfway across the country.
Now the inspector general says USDA leadership didn’t follow the letter of the law as it carried out the plan. In a report released Monday, the watchdog said that while the agency has the legal power to move the two offices, it did not obtain budgetary approval from Congress and also failed to meet a reporting deadline.
The inspector general’s findings themselves cannot stop the relocation from moving forward, but they could be used in any congressional or court battles over the USDA’s plan. Workers at the two agencies recently unionized with the American Federation of Government Employees in large part because of the upheaval of the move.
In a statement, the union said the USDA should put its plans on hold until it comes into compliance with the law: “Congress should make it clear going forward that USDA does not have the authority to carry on any similar relocation without Congressional approval, and neither does any other Department or Agency of the federal government.”
The subtext of the whole USDA battle is attrition. The Trump administration made clear from its earliest days that it wanted to shrink the government and get rid of federal employees. The federal unions have been saying that the White House is carrying out that plan by making workers miserable in hopes that they will quit.
Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, went a long way toward confirming that suspicion last week. Speaking to the South Carolina Republican Party at a gala, Mulvaney brought up the USDA move and how many workers decided to resign because of it, calling it “a wonderful way to sort of streamline government.”
Perdue had said publicly that the move from Washington to Kansas City was supposed to be about streamlining the agencies and making them more effective. Mulvaney’s comments suggest that wasn’t the motivation at all.
“Guess what happened?” Mulvaney said. “More than half the people quit. Now, it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker. I know that because a lot of them work for me, and I’ve tried. You can’t do it. … By simply saying to people, ‘You know what, we’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, D.C., and move you out to the real part of the country,’ and they quit.”
This spring HuffPost spoke to several USDA researchers who were looking for new jobs because of the impending relocation. They did not express any reluctance to live in a “real part of the country” ― they simply didn’t want to uproot the lives they’d made for themselves and their families in Washington, which is a major hub for the research they do.
Many of them felt the research would deteriorate due to attrition, and that perhaps that was the idea. One worker pointed to a study on food stamps as an example of the sort of work they do that the administration wouldn’t like. The study found that food stamps increased employment in the wake of the recession.
“They know full well you do real damage to an agency when you move it,” the employee said. “The notion that this is about making [the agency] more effective, that’s patent nonsense.”