Staff Columnist

Why is the Department of Agriculture in a city with no farms?

Trump administration looking to relocate some offices

The U.S. Department of Agriculture building seen from the viewing platform of the Washington Monument in Washington on Oct. 20, 2009. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture building seen from the viewing platform of the Washington Monument in Washington on Oct. 20, 2009. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer.

Washington, D.C. is not known for its agriculture. In fact, there are zero large farming operations there. So why is the U.S. Department of Agriculture headquarters there?

More of the department’s operations could soon be moving out of the capitol region, thanks to the Trump administration. Officials announced this month 136 communities, including six in Iowa, have expressed interest in hosting the offices of two key research units, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Administration leaders say moving out will help attract qualified staff, make the department more accessible to farmers and also lead to operational efficiencies. But the plan has sparked resistance from scientists. The left-leaning Union of Concerned Scientists organized a letter from more than 1,000 researchers opposed to moving out USDA offices.

“Relocating [National Institute of Food and Agriculture] outside of the Capitol area could hamper the ability of the agency to raise the profile of agricultural research, extension, and education, by preventing collaboration with a broad base of stakeholders and federal agencies, many of whom are based in the Capitol area,” the scientists wrote in a letter to Senate Agriculture Committee members this month.

Translation: Elite academics want to uphold their east coast echo chamber, with easy access to lobbyists and politicians who secure their government subsidies.

It’s hard to see how locating offices closer to their key stakeholders — that is, actual farmers — would hamper collaboration, especially at a time when technology makes transcontinental collaboration easier than ever. The scientists also raised concern over the plan to reorganize the Economic Research Service under the oversight of USDA’s Office of the Chief Economist, even though those agencies were previously aligned.

Interestingly, while the signers of the letter span almost every state, none are listed from Iowa, which has nation’s second-highest agricultural output.

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What was not part of USDA’s explanation for relocating offices, but should have been, is that the Washington, D.C. area already has plenty of people, putting stress on its housing market and infrastructure. Meanwhile, some inland cities around the nation have declining or stagnant populations, and would enormously benefit from an influx of highly educated, well-paid workers’ and their families.

As I’ve written before, the idea of a much larger relocation of federal functions has attracted supporters from both the left and the right. Progressive policy analyst Matthew Yglesias wrote in 2016 in Vox, “in the long run, relocated agencies’ employees would enjoy cheaper houses, shorter commutes, and a higher standard of living.” He points out a handful of science and research units already are located outside the Capitol vicinity.

And on the right, U.S. Sen Joni Ernst is sponsoring legislation to move most federal offices out of “swampy” Washington, D.C. “For too long, our federal agencies have been out-of-touch and unaware of the impact that their policies have on folks in states like Iowa,” Ernst said last week.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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