Draining Washington of Science and Talent

by Laurie Ristino

September 20, 2018

Donald Trump has, in a sense, made good on his promise to "drain" Washington, D.C. – but not in the way many people probably thought he would. The exodus from our nation's capital has been made up of the scientists, diplomats, and policy experts that a democracy needs to function, not the high-powered, special interest lobbyists voters likely had in mind. Meanwhile, a raft of grifters has gleefully taken a temporary perch in the executive branch. The ensuing debacles, scandals, and assaults on safeguards and agencies have made it stunningly clear how critical a competent, public interest-focused executive branch is to our country's well-being.

One recent example of Trump's war on federal agencies is Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue's surprise announcement last month that he planned to reorganize the Economic Research Service (ERS), an independent economic research agency. Perdue's announcement was a shock to ERS employees, who were told about the plan a mere hour before the proposal was made public. The administration's purported rationale, met with disbelief by ERS economists, is to better align ERS with the needs of the department and save money. However, the reality is that the proposed changes are a one-two punch to undermine the independence and capacity of the agency.

First, under the plan, ERS will report to the Office of the Chief Economist, removing a firewall between the ERS and political appointees. Second, the administration intends to move the guts of ERS by transferring 260 of its 300 employees out of D.C. To this end, the USDA published a post hoc request for proposals from cities and states interested in serving as the new home of ERS.

Meanwhile, the USDA will surely lose some of its most seasoned and talented economists who will not want to relocate to another part of the country, a culling the administration surely intended. In fact, the USDA has requested early retirement authority from the Office of Personnel Management to facilitate retirements. Further, Trump called for slashing ERS's budget nearly 50 percent in his proposed FY 2019 budget, a plan both chambers have thus far declined to embrace.

In August, Politico reported that Trump's shake-up of ERS had already begun with the reassignment of the agency's administrator, Mary Bohman. Dr. Bohman, a career civil servant and Ph.D. agricultural economist, now serves as an associate administrator at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), another agency under the USDA. The reassignment appears to be a continuation of Trump's strategy to undermine policy expertise by moving or removing career civil servants, as reported last November by Vanity Fair in the aptly titled article, "Inside Trump's Cruel Campaign Against USDA Scientists."

If there is an upside to the routing at USDA, which is responsible for so much that touches our lives – from food safety to conservation – it's that more citizens are aware of its important mission. In particular, I doubt many people had heard of ERS before Trump started targeting the agency.

Although the function of ERS may seem arcane to some, as both an attorney for the USDA for 20 years and then as a law professor, I can attest to how ERS's independent economic analysis of our agricultural system and its role in world markets and global food security is vital to informed policymaking. I have used ERS's products, which are freely available on its website, countless times to enrich my understanding and inform my analysis. I trust the quality and objectivity of the work. If Trump succeeds in his reorganization of ERS, I fear the loss of the agency's independence, the degradation of its important work, and the chilling impacts on other agencies.  

Fortunately, Congress has the power to stop this ill-advised plan. In fact, though the House and Senate have agreed to a couple "minibus" appropriations packages, they still need to wrap up work on other spending bills, including the one that funds USDA. That's a perfect opening for members to use their power of the purse to prevent taxpayer dollars from being spent to undermine ERS and, more fundamentally, to support expert knowledge as the foundation of sound policy.

Thanks for a cogent article! One correction...ERS has been under the direction of a political appointee (although the Trump Administration has not named one to the position). But the Under secretary for Research, Education and Economics it is a political appointment to further science in USDA, which is actually a better place than under a career employee in the Secretary's Office who is responsible for helping to form and is beholden to the Secretary's political positions.
— Katherine Evans
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Laurie Ristino is Principal and Founder of Strategies for a Sustainable Future. She is a legal and policy expert on food security, the farm bill conservation title, ecosystem services and private lands conservation.

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