This conversation is part II of our three-part series called "Silencing Science."
When the Trump administration relocated the United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service to the Kansas City area last year, about two-thirds of its employees quit their jobs rather than move.
Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, called the mass resignations a “wonderful way to streamline the government.”
These departures have stimulated a “brain drain” within an influential federal agency that “directly or indirectly effects” everyone in the U.S, historian Jamie Pietruska says.
The ERS, a nonpartisan federal research agency, provides objective economic data and analysis on farming forecasts, crop and livestock predictions, the environment, food consumption and the consumer price index for food. Their forecasts and reports are “heavily relied on” in the U.S. government, Pietruska says.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the move to Kansas City was meant to place “important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders" and attract qualified staff who are passionate about agriculture. He also claimed it would save taxpayers millions.
But Pietruska says critics — including the Union of Concerned Scientists — believe the Trump administration moved the ERS away from the Department of Agriculture’s base in Washington, D.C., to suppress facts, since the data the ERS publicizes isn’t “politically convenient for the current administration.”
“They're all concerned that while on paper, it might seem that relocating and downsizing a federal agency will save taxpayers money, the long-term costs are incredibly severe,” she says.
The ERS was established in 1862 in order to regulate speculators who were manipulating commodity markets and taking advantage of farmers, she says. At a time when farmers had little agency over crop prices, the ERS was able to help stabilize a key part of the American economy.
Today, she says the ERS has been able to show Obama-era policy that increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits actually had “long-lasting positive effects on rural communities” and created local jobs. This report “directly undercuts” the Trump administration’s argument that increased SNAP benefits were depleting the country’s resources, she says.
Because the ERS works closely with lawmakers, oftentimes face-to-face, the distance between Washington and the Midwest hurts that connection on crucial discussions involving the U.S. economy, she says.
Losing civil servants in the ERS — many who have years of experience working across political party lines and have invaluable “institutional memory” — has caused delays in reporting, she says. Some projects have been put on hold because the expertise is lacking.
Who fills the void left in Washington? Corporate lobbyists, Pietruska says.
“When we’re not there, Congress relies on other sources of information — think tanks and lobbyists, whoever’s got the biggest donor,” an ERS employee told the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell.
Consumers might not notice the impact right away. But Pietruska says the recent E. coli outbreaks in foodborne illnesses and recalls of romaine lettuce are signs pointing back to the ERS relocation and employee purge.
“I think that consumers will have to think, perhaps, even more carefully about food safety as they're shopping in the grocery store,” she says.
This segment aired on February 4, 2020.