July 01, 2020

Sen. Van Hollen, Rep. Wexton Introduce Bicameral Legislation to Ensure Transparency in Federal Agency Relocations

Today, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and U.S. Representative Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) introduced the Conducting Oversight to Secure Transparency (COST) of Relocations Act, legislation to require federal agencies seeking to relocate to conduct and make public a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of the proposed change. 

“Last year the Trump Administration decided to move ERS and NIFA out of the National Capital Region without any real justification. 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," said Senator Van Hollen. 

Senator Van Hollen has been a leading voice in opposing the Administration’s attacks on scientific research and their politically motivated efforts to relocate federal agencies. Last year, Van Hollen introduced a bill in an effort to bar USDA from relocating out of the National Capital Regionpushed Secretary Perdue to clarify inconsistent details on the logistics of the move, sent a letter urging USDA to extend the decision deadline for those employees forced to consider relocating, and asked USDA to explain their decision to reduce Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments for employees who chose not to relocate.

“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,” said Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton. “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. Requiring a comprehensive and public cost-benefit analysis of agency relocations prevents partisan efforts to undermine the mission of our federal agencies and ensures taxpayer dollars are spent appropriately.”

Under the COST of Relocations Act, federal agencies would be required to conduct a cost-benefit analysis in accordance with federal guidelines for “best practices” for undertaking such a review. These best practices require not only an analysis of quantitative data such as the costs of real estate and staffing, but also qualitative metrics that are critical to the success of federal agencies including employee attrition, loss of institutional knowledge, and short- and long-term impacts on the ability of the agency to carry out its mission. The results of this analysis would be submitted to the agency’s Inspector General for review and made available to the public.

This legislation comes in response to a continued assault on scientific integrity in the federal government from the Trump administration. The administration has weaponized the relocation of federal agencies to stifle scientific research that contradicts its political agenda by forcing the mass attrition of nonpartisan career civil servants.  

Last year, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) moved two federal research agencies, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) from Washington, DC, to the Kansas City region. Only about 25% of the employees actually made the move with their agency, largely due to a haphazard relocation process. As a result, much of the work of these agencies has been reduced or delayed due to lack of capacity. 

The USDA has refused to release publicly the full cost-benefit analysis that it hired a third-party to conduct on the relocation. Only an 11-page summary has been made available which does not make it clear as to whether the criteria of the analysis met standard regulatory cost-benefit analysis guidelines.

In a similar circumstance, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that the relocation of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado, last year did not conduct a full cost-benefit analysis during its move.

The COST of Relocation Act is endorsed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). 

“Last year we watched with dismay as the Trump administration abruptly decided to relocate two of USDA’s research agencies. We now all plainly see what damage it did – massive staff losses, disrupted and delayed research and grants to universities – it’s just chaos. Something needed to be done to prevent this from happening again,” said Rebecca Boehm, Economist, Food and Environment program with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If enacted, the COST of Relocations Act will prevent the Trump Administration and any future administration from wasting taxpayer dollars on hastily planned, politically motivated relocations. It will also help ensure the work our federal agencies do, which is needed now more than ever to protect our health, safety, and economic well-being, is not significantly disrupted or damaged as a result of a relocation.” 

“This Administration has undertaken multiple relocations of federal agencies that were conducted hastily and without basis or analysis,” said American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley. “Instead of prudent financial decision making, the motivation seems to be getting rid of federal employees and silencing science and research the Administration finds inconvenient.  In the last year, we’ve seen this with ERS and NIFA, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  We strongly support the COST of Relocations Act because it will bring much-needed oversight, transparency, and common sense to the process of relocating a federal agency.”

“The COST Act will help ensure Congress and the American people have the information they need to analyze the plans of federal agencies before relocating across the country,” said Tim Stretton, policy analyst at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). “POGO commends Rep. Wexton and Senator Van Hollen for introducing this critically important piece of legislation to improve oversight.” 

The full text of the bill is available here.

The COST of Relocations Act is cosponsored by Representatives Don Beyer (D-VA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Anthony Brown (D-MD), Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Jared Huffman (D-CA), Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), John Sarbanes (D-MD), and David Trone (D-MD). 

The Senate bill is cosponsored by Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Mark Warner (D-VA).