The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service is not one of the federal government’s better-known agencies, but it is an invaluable resource for farm financial performance information.
That’s why it is deeply troubling that experienced economists who work for the service have resigned in recent months. The reason given by most is that they are under pressure from the Trump administration to write glowing reports about how the president’s tax and trade policies have benefited farmers.
They also allege that when they fail to do so, they are reprimanded by USDA Sec. Sonny Perdue and others on the White House staff.
Economic Research Service economists are supposed to work in an apolitical environment and report facts without political bias. Perdue’s most obvious means of retaliation is to order the Economic Research Service economists to leave Washington, D.C. It’s a move that was made as part of a general USDA reorganization, but some view it as having other motivations.
Six economists who worked in the ag economy, ag taxation and food programs quit in April and reports say several more are planning to exit. The six had more than 50 years of combined experience. The loss of their expertise will be felt.
Those within the research service fear that Perdue, with the president’s permission, is attempting to convert the agency into a political unit. The mission, since the service was founded, is to provide unvarnished information useful to lenders, financial institutions, farmers and other professionals.
All publications issued by the Economic Research Service are peer-reviewed before publication. It was troubling to the professionals that Perdue ordered a disclaimer be attached to reports stating that the findings were only preliminary and should not be considered an evaluation of policy.
“The administration didn’t appreciate some of our findings, so this is retaliation to harm the agency and send a message,’’ said an anonymous ERC employee to a Politico reporter.
Perdue, for his part, says political beliefs had crept into some reports. He said the disclaimer and more peer review is needed to ensure unbiased reports.
The ag secretary has said moving the service out of Washington was part of a reorganization of USDA. Relocating the staff will enable USDA to hire experts with better agricultural backgrounds.
New locations for Economist Research Service staff won’t be decided until the end of the year. Staffers who decide not to move will be offered early retirement. Those who want to remain in the agency will have to uproot their families and lives and move.
The Economic Research Service had 329 employees at the end of 2016. In his latest budget proposal, President Trump wants to cut nearly $50 billion from USDA’s budget over the next decade.
Perdue, who is proving to be an inept ag secretary, has some explaining to do. Morale within the research service has plunged. Any attempt to weaken the quality of reports published by the service will damage agriculture.
Politicizing the service would be a horrible move, one that the nation’s farmers should not accept.