Late USDA Data, No Data, No Problem?

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By Steve Suppan, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

President Trump has signed a Continuing Resolution to keep the government operating through November 21. That budgetary lifeline will enable mostly delayed and truncated publication of 38 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports, some of them required by law. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s decision to relocate most of the Economic Research Service (ERS) to the Kansas City area resulted in the departure of more than half the staff who would have produced those reports on time and in full. Sources for Washington Post article estimated the ERS departures at 75 percent, including the entire staff in charge of publications. Failure to agree on a budget by November 21 would, of course, shut the government down again, delaying release of the monthly World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates and other reports that supply crucial data for agribusiness and the financial markets.

According to the union representing ERS staff, 19 of 280 employees chose to relocate to Kansas City, while 44 will be allowed to telecommute for long enough to produce the required reports before reporting to the Kansas City office. Retirees have been recruited to work half-time in Washington at their pro-rated former salary until ERS is re-staffed. Mandated reports will have data in Excel spreadsheets, rather than chart and graph data visualizations, and special topic reports, e.g. on dairy farm consolidation, will be reduced, fewer or missing. Reports not on the USDA publications calendar will be discontinued.

According to the American Statistical Association’s critique of the USDA’s rationale for relocation, the agency presented no persuasive arguments or data to justify moving most employees of the data-driven ERS. The USDA cost-benefit analysis to justify the relocation was released ten months after Secretary Perdue had announced it. Three members of the Applied and Agricultural Economics Association (AAEA) wrote in June that the relocation would cost taxpayers between $83 million and $182 million, rather than the $300 million in savings over 20 years that USDA forecast. But the AAEA critique didn’t assume the full scale and research impact of the ERS staff exodus.

The relocation of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), also to the Kansas City area, will result in delay or discontinuance of $1.7 billion in research grants to land-grant universities, due to the departure of 67% of NIFA staff who evaluate grant applications, process them, and then evaluate grant results. Senator Debbie Stabenow, Ranking Member of the agriculture committee wrote on September 27 to Secretary Perdue, “Over the past year, the Administration has repeatedly told Congress that the relocation would not affect capacity to administer research grants, conduct economic research, and carry out the critical missions of these two agencies.” Senator Stabenow noted that among the Farm Bill mandated and funded research grants that NIFA would not be able to administer with its reduced capacity are those for the Specialty Crops [horticulture] Initiative, the Organic Agriculture Research Initiative, the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. Senator Stabenow is unlikely to be satisfied with Secretary Perdue’s statements about an aggressive hiring program to rebuild ERS and NIFA and is unlikely to meet her October 11 deadline for responding to six multi-part questions.

Another question asked by Senate and House Democrats concerns the legality of relocation with obtaining congressional budgetary approval. The USDA’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) characterized as “unconstitutional and without legal effect” the law requiring that approval in response to a USDA Office of the Inspector General Report recommendation (p. 9) to which the OLC is supposed to respond with a legal argument by October 1. In effect, the OLC is breaching the constitutional separation of powers to arrogate to itself judicial powers to declare a law passed by Congress as one “without legal effect.”  Destruction of the separation of powers is a hallmark of the Trump administration’s political appointees.

What difference does it make if some ERS reports are delayed, truncated or discontinued? A Washington Post opinion article summarized some instances of market manipulation that occurred prior to the creation of ERS in 1961 (and its predecessor agency), due to spotty market information. The author gave an overview of how ERS reports benefited consumers, farmers, food stamp recipients and the environment, and then asked who would benefit by cutting the staff and research areas of ERS: “The beneficiaries? Large corporations that stand to profit from ideologically motivated agriculture policy.”

Agribusiness corporations have been publicly silent about this and other USDA reorganization initiatives, focusing their lobbying efforts on Congress to approve the new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and obtaining compensation for trade dispute related export losses. But if the decimated ERS staff are unable to publish a study, two years in the making, on the negative human health, environmental and financial consequences of the highly volatile pesticide Dicamba for crops not engineered to resist Dicamba, who in agribusiness benefits, other than the manufacturers of Dicamba and Dicamba resistant seeds?

Nevertheless, the absence of any agribusiness protest against the ERS relocation is difficult to understand, taking into consideration only the Market and Trade Economics Division reports that will be subject to “significant delays” according to Chris Clayton’s excerpt from a leaked ERS internal memo: “Changes in Trade from Removing Global Market Distorting Policies; Agricultural Market Access Under Tariff Rate Quotas; U.S. Agricultural Exports to Regions in China; The Changing Composition of US Ag Trade with Canada and Mexico; Evaluating USDA Long-Run Forecasts for US Harvested Area; India’s Oilseed and Feed Market; U.S. Competition for Southeast Asia Dairy Imports; Food Loss at the Farm and Pre-Retail Sectors: A Look at the Produce Supply Chain in the United States; Brazil’s Agricultural Competitiveness: Impact on Global Trade; Issues and Trends in Production Practices and Costs of the U.S. Corn Sector; Factors Contributing to Changes in Agricultural Commodity Prices and Trade for the United States and the World; A Deeper Look into the USDA Crop Baseline Projections.” For each of these reports, there is at least one agribusiness sub-sector constituency. Will any of them be protesting once they realize that ERS reporting will no longer be timely and complete, because they didn’t stand up to USDA when it overrode and circumvented Congress to force an exodus of ERS staff?

For Mick Mulvaney, the acting director of White House staff and the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the relocations accomplish a long sought goal: “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 in the real part of the country,’ and they quit—what a wonderful way to sort of streamline government, and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.” “Streamline” is euphemism for eviscerate, not just federal employees, but their research and those businesses, extension agencies and non-governmental organizations that depend on that research. But the relocations keep in Washington ERS and NIFA staff who are required to manage the agencies and testify to Congress. The relocated and new ERS and NIFA staff who are in Kansas City, Kansas or Missouri will still report to managers who, in turn report to political appointees who make their careers “in the bubble.”

Perhaps the discontinuance of ERS analysis of the food dollar series (estimating the share of the food dollar for farmers, processors and retailers) the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) Policy Data Base, the Food Environment Atlas and the Cost of Foodborne Illness Data Product and other non-commodity and non-trade ERS publications will not be missed by the large corporations. But if these reports are not produced, how will the non-trade, non-commodity market programs, which comprise more than two thirds of the Farm Bill budget, be implemented and evaluated?

Public agriculture data and studies surely do not have an unblemished record. USDA data collection and research can be distorted for nefarious purposes, e.g. to depict a non-existent black farmer renaissance during the Obama administration and try to ameliorate the scandal of the USDA’s history of racial discrimination. But even data distortion and skewed interpretation relies on staff, subject expertise and resources to collect that data, which USDA is now destroying for large swathes of its congressionally mandated research mission.

The impact of the relocations on the ERS and NIFA staff morale, capacity to carry out the agencies’ mission and the personal lives of the staff has been widespread. But a surviving ERS employee wrote in the Washington Post, “There are stacks of reports and research completed with no staff left to publish the results. Data sets are abandoned, and a generation of scientific expertise extinguished. . . Even though working as a government researcher has become difficult under [Secretary]Perdue, we still intend to do our jobs. The public needs science, and despite all his efforts to remove us, we will keep working for the public good.”

Originally posted here.

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