by Marion Nestle
Sep 21 2018

USDA’s double-speak proposal to “improve” the ERS: brute-force politics

I listened in yesterday to the webinar on USDA’s proposed relocation and reorganization of the Economic Research Service.  Participants included Scott Swinton (Michigan State University), Cathie Woteki (former undersecretary for research at USDA), Susan Offutt (former ERS head), Gale Buchanan (another former undersecretary for research, USDA), and Stephen Censky (current USDA deputy secretary). The former officials were unanimous in arguing that the proposal to relocate the agency outside of Washington DC and reorganize it into the USDA Secretary’s office was “ill-conceived,” made no sense, was done without appropriate consultation, was potentially illegal, would politicize the agency, and would damage, if not destroy, an agency that is the jewel of USDA. The USDA says the reasons for doing this are easier recruitment, cheaper rent, closer alignment with the Secretary’s policy initiatives, and getting the agency closer to stakeholders.  None of these bears up under even the most casual scrutiny. So what is this really about? I’m guess that this is about getting political control over—silencing—an agency that conducts independent, unbiased, nonpartisan research that risks leading to inconvenient truths. Here, for example, are some recent publications [with my comments].

ERS is not broke and does not need fixing.  The proposal must be understood as an attempt to destroy the ERS.  Participants called for:

  • Congressional hearings
  • An independent cost-benefit analysis
  • Delay further action until then or, better yet, a full stop

I am a big user of ERS data and a great admirer of the work of ERS economists. Other views on the webinar and this issue

Additions, September 24

The groups that did the WEbinar have forwarded links:

These ask Congress to:

  • retain the ERS in the national Capitol region;
  • maintain and strengthen the integrity and independence of the ERS as a statistical agency; and
  • keep the budget and personnel for the USDA Economic Research Service at least at FY 2018 levels.

Additions, September 25 (thanks to the Hagstrom Report

USDA — Secretary Perdue response to Roberts and Stabenow
American Statistical Association — Count on Stats
— Fact Sheet
— Friends of Agricultural Statistics and Analysis Sign-On Letter Opposing USDA re-organization and re-alignment of the Economic Research Service
— USDA Economic Research Service Sign-On Letter – Former administration officials and statistical agency leaders
— NIFA Relocation Letter to Congress
Center for Progressive Reform — Draining Washington of Science and Talent