New Legislation Would Increase Oversight Over Agency Relocations

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Measure would require federal officials to conduct detailed cost-benefit analyses and provide them to inspectors general and the public for review before undertaking any effort to move federal agencies.

Democrats in both chambers of Congress on Wednesday introduced legislation requiring greater oversight over proposed agency relocations by requiring making analyses of such proposals available for public review.

The Conducting Oversight to Secure Transparency of Relocations Act, introduced by Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., in the House and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., in the Senate, would require agencies seeking to move at least 100 employees or 5% of their workforce to a different region to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the proposal, including both quantitative data like real estate and staffing costs and qualitative metrics such as potential workforce attrition, and then send the results to the inspector general for review and publication.

Wexton and Van Hollen indicated that the bill is needed following the “haphazard” relocation from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City last year of two Agriculture Department science agencies: the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

In those instances, USDA was accused of rushing implementation of its relocation plans to avoid congressional efforts to block funding of the move. Ultimately, the department delayed some aspects of the relocation until December 2019, and as only 25% of employees agreed to move to Kansas City, the department actually rehired retired employees on a part-time basis to help with the agencies’ workload.

The Agriculture Department’s rationale for moving employees was met with skepticism, particularly after then-White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney described agency relocations as a “wonderful way” to reduce the federal payroll. When pressed by lawmakers, USDA provided only an 11-page summary of its cost-benefit analysis.

“Last year the Trump administration decided to move ERS and NIFA out of the National Capital Region without any real justification,” Van Hollen said. “The move ran contrary to the best interests of the agencies, undermined their missions to support essential research for American farmers, and ultimately wasted taxpayer dollars. This legislation would help protect federal workers and agencies from the political whims of President Trump or any future president and ensure they can continue their service on behalf of Americans.”

Wexton added: “The Trump administration’s hollowing out of our federal agencies and attacks on our civil service have left us with an alarming void of expertise that will undermine the work of our government scientists and researchers for years to come. The COST of Relocations Act would shine a light on agency relocations that are nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on scientific integrity and provide the transparency and accountability that was sorely missing when the Trump administration took a wrecking ball to ERS and NIFA.”

The legislation has the support of the Union of Concerned Scientists; the American Federation of Government Employees, which began representing ERS and NIFA workers who voted to unionize after USDA first announced its relocation plans; and the Project on Government Oversight.