Controversial agency relocation slammed as attack on science by lawmakers, employees

Jul 18, 2019 by

Critics of the Trump administration’s efforts say the decision is politically motivated.

Grand Junction, CO, the proposed new headquarters for BLM. CREDIT: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images


Employees and Democratic lawmakers are pushing back on the Trump administration’s plans to relocate hundreds of positions within two agencies outside of Washington, D.C. — a move some see as an effort to clamp down on science.

While the planned moves of both the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and parts of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) differ in their scope and rationale, resistance to both plans has shaped up similarly.

Critics are expressing concern over the motivations behind the efforts, which would lead to a mass-exodus of agency experts unwilling to relocate. This would spur a science brain drain in line with President Donald Trump’s crackdown on reports and research from within his own government.

“These decisions… are meant to displace seasoned scientists and regulators who have honorably served Republican and Democratic Administrations alike,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) in a statement to ThinkProgress responding to both the BLM and USDA relocation plans. Van Hollen sits on the Interior and Environment Appropriations subcommittee.

Responsible for administering public lands, BLM has become a battleground under the Trump administration as the White House has rolled back the boundaries of national monuments and advocated for fossil fuel drilling on U.S. acreage.

Now, the bureau is sparking controversy again. Administration officials confirmed this week that the overwhelming majority of BLM positions in D.C. are set for relocation. Around 84% of BLM staffers will be asked to relocate by the end of next year to areas outside of the nation’s capital, mostly to western states.

That announcement comes a month after Secretary Sonny Perdue mandated that over 500 USDA employees move en masse to Kansas City — located in both Missouri and Kansas — by Sept. 30, and gave them a deadline of July 15 to respond.

In the case of BLM, the Interior Department (DOI) plans to concentrate many of the positions in Grand Junction, Colorado, in addition to a range of western states stretching from Arizona to Alaska. Joe Balash, DOI assistant secretary for land and minerals, called the decision “demonstrably cost-effective” in a July 16 letter to Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Interior and Environment.

The Trump administration argues that the move would both cut expenses and shift workers closer to the public lands they focus on, an argument supported by many Republicans including Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), who sits on the Natural Resources Committee.

But Democrats immediately raised objections. Udall said he had “serious reservations” about the move, as did his subcommittee counterpart in the House, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN). Democrats in both chambers of Congress indicated this week that they feel the plan is largely an effort to push out the D.C.-based senior staff who do not want to relocate.

Many of those employees are experts in their field, including scientists. “It’s a way for them to get rid of a lot of professional staff here in Washington,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) in a statement.

Many BLM employees are already located in other parts of the country and support for moving the bureau has been somewhat bipartisan over the years. But the latest push for relocation by the Trump administration coincides with a heated clash between USDA and its employees.

Given until this past Monday to make their decision, scores of USDA workers have opted out of moving. Of the employees with the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), more than half declined to relocate, according to Politico.

ERS workers in particular argued that the move would disrupt their work and efforts to publish important scientific reports. NIFA, meanwhile, is responsible for grant funding that touches climate, economic, and agricultural work that uses D.C. as a home base.

Many USDA employees have also argued that the move is politically motivated. ERS has recently released reports critical of Trump’s escalating trade war with China and its impact on farmers.

Experts also worry the move is a warning shot with implications for climate science. An investigation by Politico last month found that USDA has repeatedly sought to bury studies showing the danger of climate change. That report noted that some scientists see the ERS move as a foreshadowing of wider repercussions for research that doesn’t align with the administration’s broader “energy dominance” agenda.

USDA workers have fought through their union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), to dispute the move, but the department has rejected those efforts. Moreover, there is concern that other departments could face similar moves, like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, both of which are under DOI’s jurisdiction.

But Democrats asserted that they are looking into measures to combat the relocations, emphasizing that the move could be costly to taxpayers in addition to dramatically shifting the wealth of knowledge offered by current government staffers.

Lawmakers indicated they might seek to halt the relocation by blocking its funding in the upcoming appropriations bill that covers both the DOI and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A group of senators, including Van Hollen, have meanwhile introduced legislation to keep ERS and NIFA in the D.C. metro area, a move that was made before the BLM move was announced.

“This Administration is acting to undermine the subject-matter experts at many of our federal agencies,” said Van Hollen, who added that his office would “continue to use every tool available to push back against these actions.”

This article has been updated to note that only USDA would be impacted by the Senate legislation due to timing.

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