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USDA, BLM to Move Some Operations to Nation’s Heartland

September 2, 2019
By Duggan Flanakin

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is moving two of its departments to Kansas City, and the U.S. Department of Interior is relocating the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is moving its Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to Kansas City, and the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) is relocating the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado.

Closer to the People

USDA and DOI say they are moving the headquarters to place them nearer to the majority of the people and lands they serve.

In a press statement announcing USDA’s action, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said a USDA cost-benefit analysis indicated the move will save the department nearly $300 million over 15 years.

“The [move to the] Kansas City Region will allow ERS and NIFA to increase efficiencies and effectiveness and bring important resources and manpower closer to all of our customers,” Perdue said. “We did not undertake these relocations lightly, and we are doing it to enhance long-term sustainability and success of these agencies. … The considerable taxpayer savings will allow us to be more efficient and improve our ability to retain more employees in the long run.

“We will be placing important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from Washington, D.C. [as well as] increasing the probability of attracting highly-qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities,” Perdue said.

By the Numbers

USDA is moving 550 jobs to the Kansas City area. USDA reported 250 employees have said they would leave the agency rather than accept a transfer.

BLM’s relocation, though smaller in absolute numbers, represents a larger percentage shift of agency employees. Just 4 percent, or approximately 400, of BLM’s 10,000 employees are located in the Washington, D.C. area. When BLM’s relocation is complete, fewer than 65 BLM staff will work out of offices in Washington, D.C.

DOI is relocating 58 positions to BLM’s state office and national operations center in Lakewood, Colorado, and 27, including BLM’s director, to the new BLM headquarters in Grand Junction. An additional 222 positions are shifting from Washington, D.C. to offices in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.

Location ‘Never Made Sense’

The BLM should always have been located in the western United States, says Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who has long advocated moving the agency out of Washington, D.C.

“The federal government owns roughly 47 percent of this land out West … where 93 percent of the federal land is located,” Gardner said on the floor of the U.S. Senate on July 31. “The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for managing … 245 million acres [of] … federal surface lands. All but 100,000 acres of those surface acres … are west of the Mississippi River and located predominantly in the eleven westernmost states and Alaska.”

“It’s never made sense for leadership to work 2,000 miles away from these states, insulated by the inevitably different perspectives of life inside the Beltway,” Gardner said. “When you don’t live in the communities that are among and surrounded by these lands, it’s easy to make decisions that close off energy development or close cattle ranches and grazing opportunities, because the consequences are felt out West instead of in Washington, D.C.”

‘Long Overdue’

The BLM’s relocation shows President Donald Trump keeps his word, says Amy Oliver Cooke, executive vice president for the Independence Institute and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.

“The move out west is long overdue,” said Cooke. “Other administrations have paid lip service to moving BLM, but it took President Trump’s courage and Sen. Cory Gardner’s determination to defy the DC swamp and make it happen.

“Now BLM bureaucrats will have to live and work with the people impacted by their decisions,” Cooke said.

Constitutional Dispute

Some members of Congress cast the relocation efforts as part of President Donald Trump’s attempt to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C., which he vowed to do during his campaign for the Presidency.

Critics of relocating federal agencies outside of the nation’s capital, such as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), say moving federal agencies without explicit congressional authorization violates various laws. They have threatened to take legal action to block the moves.

USDA says other laws, U.S. Supreme Court rulings, and determinations of the Government Accountability Office indicate provisions in laws limiting executive agencies’ ability to relocate in order to improve their operations are unconstitutional.

To settle the matter and avert prolonged legal disputes, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) has introduced the Strategic Withdrawal of Agencies for Meaningful Placement (SWAMP) Act, which, among other things, would repeal a Truman-era statute specifying “all offices attached to the seat of government be exercised in the District of Columbia, and not elsewhere.”

“[The SWAMP Act aims to] distribute agency headquarters over geographically diverse areas of the nation to help ensure agencies focus on the stakeholders most impacted by their decisions, and not on the whims of the Washington bureaucracy, while also bringing good, stable jobs to new parts of the country,” Ernst said in her press release describing the bill.

May Best Location Win

Ernst’s legislation would create a competitive bidding process allowing states, cities, and towns across the country to compete to be an agency’s new home.

The SWAMP Act was referred to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on July 25, where it has yet to receive a hearing.

Perdue announced the USDA move on June 13, and DOI announced the BLM relocation in July.

Duggan Flanakin (dflanakin@gmail.com) writes from Austin, Texas.

Official Connections

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO): https://www.gardner.senate.gov/; https://www.gardner.senate.gov/contact-cory/email-cory

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA): https://www.ernst.senate.gov/public/; https://www.ernst.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/email-joni

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Environment