WASHINGTON – A report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) raised questions regarding the US Dept. of Agriculture’s budgetary authority to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

In its report, OIG said that while federal laws give USDA “…certain budgetary authorities there are established limitations on such authorities to realign or relocate offices.”

In response to the OIG’s findings, USDA said, “…we respectfully disagree with the Official Draft’s questioning of USDA’s budgetary authority regarding the relocation of ERS and NIFA. The department’s actions comply fully with all applicable laws. The views of all three branches of government — the Supreme Court, the Dept. of Justice, and the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress — all support the department’s position. OIG’s suggestion otherwise ignores these precedents dating back nearly 40 years.”

Specifically, OIG said the relocation of NIFA may have violated a federal law.

NIFA was provided $6 million for relocation expenses, and USDA spent approximately $169,655 of the $6 million appropriation to hire a private contractor to review expressions of interest in relocating the agency. Federal law requires USDA to provide written notice to the Appropriations Committees of both Houses of Congress at least 30 days before reprogramming or transferring funds to relocate an office or its employees. USDA also must receive Congressional approval for such reprogramming or transfers of funds.

USDA did notify Congress of the agency’s plan to engage private sector assistance in its search for a new location, but missed the deadline by approximately 139 days.

“Accordingly, the obligation of a portion of the $6 million to initiate an assessment related to NIFA’s relocation may have violated the ADA [Antideficiency Act], which prohibits government employees from making or authorizing an expenditure or obligation exceeding an amount available for the expenditure in an appropriation or fund for the expenditure or obligation, and from involving the federal government in a contract or obligation for the payment of money before an appropriation is made,” OIG said.

Additionally, on Oct. 22, 2018, without receiving prior Congressional approval, USDA granted approximately $169,655 in ERS funds for a private contractor to review bids. “That prior approval did not appear to have been granted,” OIG said.

OIG, however, did agree that USDA has the legal authority to make operational decisions — including the relocation and realignment of agencies — within the department. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had proposed realigning the ERS under the Office of the Chief Economist (OCE). But the realignment of ERS involves “…reprogramming or transfer of funds…” which would require Congressional approval 30 days before any reprogramming or transfer can occur, OIG said. Perdue withdrew his plan to realign ERS under the OCE.

Some federal lawmakers pressed for more information regarding the feasibility of moving the agencies outside the Washington, D.C., area and requested the OIG to investigate. Critics of the plan cited a lack of transparency and no clear benefits of relocating the agencies as reasons driving their opposition. It’s not clear what critics of the relocation plan can do to stop the move which is already underway and with Congress on recess until the second week of September.