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Attempts To Reverse Trump's USDA Agency Changes Would Be Difficult

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden has been signing executive orders to reverse Trump administration policies, but some parts of Trump's legacy won't be easy to reverse. For example, research into food and farming took a major hit during the Trump years. Here's Frank Morris of member station KCUR.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers got crossways with the Trump administration by publishing and funding objective analysis of stuff like climate change, the efficiency of food assistance programs and tax cuts that benefit mostly the richest farmers. That's according to Tom Bewick, who's with USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

TOM BEWECK: There definitely was hostility in the Trump administration towards federal workers. And there was also hostility in the Trump administration towards science. And so if you're a federal employee and a science agency, that was the double whammy.

MORRIS: When Congress wouldn't go along with cutting USDA research, the administration came up with plan b - move two agencies - the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA, and the Economic Research Service, or ERS - far away from Washington. Dozens of local governments aggressively courted them, much as they would a corporate headquarters. Kansas City won with support from two states, Kansas and Missouri, as well as millions of dollars in local incentives. USDA promised huge savings for taxpayers and more than 550 new high-paying jobs for Kansas City.

KATHERINE SMITH EVANS: I guess somebody swallowed the propaganda in Kansas City. And I hope they're not suffering too badly from it because those benefits that were projected aren't coming forth.

MORRIS: Katherine Smith Evans ran the Economic Research Service during parts of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. She says more than half the employees quit rather than uproot their families and move.

EVANS: The agencies have been decimated. Their ability to perform the functions they were created to perform - it doesn't exist anymore.

MORRIS: Despite heavy recruiting, both USDA research agencies are now roughly half the size they were before the move. The number of economic reports coming out has dropped by half. Federally funded university research isn't getting the guidance or scrutiny it once did. And experienced staffers, like Desiree Rucker at NIFA, say they are running on fumes.

DESIREE RUCKER: I've gone from running two or three programs to five, six, seven programs. We're two years behind. I can't keep up.

MORRIS: And people like Rucker are not easy to replace. The most experienced NIFA and ERS staffers are researchers working at the very top of their fields, often leading the national discussions on huge topics like how to feed the world in the midst of climate change.

LAURA DODSON: We've lost hundreds, if not thousands of staff years of expertise.

MORRIS: Laura Dodson is an ERS economist and the acting vice president of the employees union. She says President Biden's nominated secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, could make a dent in the problem right away.

DODSON: I think a day one priority for Vilsack would just be to simply remove the restriction on hiring to be in Kansas City and allow hiring to be in Kansas City or D.C. And that would allow us to quickly get back some of our former staffers.

MORRIS: People like economist Seth Wechsler, who left his job at the Economic Research Service before the move.

SETH WECHSLER: I think many of the folks who didn't move out to Kansas City would jump at an opportunity to return. And a job at ERS is something of a dream job.

MORRIS: And for all the upheaval to move USDA researchers to Kansas City, the office building rented for them has sit largely empty since the pandemic hit. Wechsler. says that proves a point.

WECHSLER: We're all working remotely now, so it seems reasonably cost free to hire folks to work out of D.C. metropolitan area.

MORRIS: There are some complications, though. Kansas City put up millions of dollars to subsidize the USDA's move. The agencies signed a 15-year lease. And lots of the new employees and some of the transfers like being in Kansas City. Forcing them to move back east, would just cause another big disruption. Former official Katherine Evans says the whole move was based on politics, not objective analysis. She's excited about legislation to keep this kind of thing from happening again. It's called the COST of Relocations Act. And Evans says it's a direct response to the forced move of two USDA research agencies across the country.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.