WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2021, if enacted, would reduce funding for the US Dept. of Agriculture’s beleaguered Economic Research Service (ERS) by 27 percent from what was authorized by Congress for fiscal year 2020. The president proposed an ERS budget of $62 million for fiscal year 2021, which compared with an enacted $85.3 million in fiscal 2020. The reduction contained in the president’s budget reflected proposed cuts in research, publications and staff.
While presidents’ budget proposals typically are considered dead on arrival when sent to Congress, they nevertheless reflect administration priorities and therefore may not be so easily dismissed. And in the case of the ERS, the Trump administration’s sustained efforts to trim the agency’s activities, budget and workforce, thwarted by Congress in previous budget cycles, largely were accomplished outside the budgeting process, by the USDA’s administrative decision to relocate the bulk of the ERS workforce from Washington to Kansas City.
As background to the relocation, President Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget released in January 2018 had called for a 48 percent reduction in funding for the agency. While Congress rejected the proposal, it sent tremors throughout the ERS workforce and marked the beginning of an exodus of research economists from the agency, said Laura Dodson, vice president of Local 3403 of the American Federation of Government Employees, the bargaining unit representing ERS employees.
“Our agency has been budgeted for 330 employees, and in January 2018, we were staffed at about 320 or so,” Dodson said. “By the time Secretary Perdue in August 2018 announced we were going to be relocated outside Washington, D.C., we already had lost about 40 staff. By the time Secretary Perdue announced the relocation would be to Kansas City, we were down to around 230 people.
“One-hundred-eight-one staff were asked to move to Kansas City, but only 16 did so.”
Dodson said as of Oct. 1, 2019, the ERS workforce included 76 individuals retained in Washington (a USDA spokesperson indicated a Washington headquarters ERS workforce of 66 as of Feb. 1), the 16 individuals who transferred to Kansas City, 22 employees on extended contracts who were told they would be required to transfer to Kansas City in three to six months (5 seemed to have done so) and 17 individuals newly hired in Kansas City. The KC ERS workforce, therefore, was about 40, a number confirmed by the USDA. The spokesperson said as of Feb. 1, the ERS in total had 122 staff positions occupied.
The president’s proposed budget for fiscal 2021 includes funding to bring the Kansas City ERS workforce up to 109 through “aggressive recruiting following significant relocation-related attrition.” The proposed budget also provides for retention of 78 positions in Washington. The USDA proposed budget envisions, therefore, a total ERS staff of 187 in fiscal 2021 compared with 122 currently and with funding providing for 329 employees authorized by Congress in the enacted fiscal 2020 budget.
In the wake of the relocation, some traditional activities of ERS economists continued. The 76 staff members remaining in Washington include those who produce the commodity Outlook reports as well as the farm income team and the survey team, Dodson said. But ERS research teams were eviscerated having lost most of their members, Dodson observed. Most lamentable, she commented, was the loss of economists with years or even decades of experience, equating to thousands of staff years, in long-term and specialized agricultural research that cannot be replicated anywhere else.
The president’s ERS budget for fiscal 2021 would decrease funding for research on agricultural markets and trade, farms, conservation, and agricultural research and development by $11.3 million.
“ERS will discontinue research relative to farm, conservation and trade policy, and on returns to investments in agricultural research and development,” the USDA’s explanatory notes said. “ERS will also discontinue its annual estimates of international food security for low- and middle-income countries and research on international development that supports this activity. At the proposed funding level, research and extramural agreements associated with special initiatives such as on research innovations for policy effectiveness, new energy sources (including bioenergy, renewable energy and shale oil and gas), local and regional food markets, beginning farmers and ranchers, invasive species, and markets for environmental services will be eliminated.”
The USDA said core capital expenditures, including the Agricultural Resource Management Survey and private sector commodity data and intelligence will be maintained, but there may be a reduction in the frequency of commodity specific surveys and in the number of states for which state-level estimates will be developed.
The USDA said the ERS will continue to provide analysis and monthly newsletters to support participating in the USDA’s Inter-Agency Commodity Estimate Committees and provide modeling and data related to the USDA’s Agricultural Baseline Projections, but it will narrow its international research.
The USDA also proposed an $8.4 million decrease in funding for research and analysis on food assistance, nutrition and diet quality, a $2 million decrease in funding for research on rural prosperity and well-being, and a $2.2 million decrease in funding for food safety research and analysis.