The USDA disagrees with the finding of its Office of the Inspector General that the department may have violated federal law when it used funding without the approval of congressional committees to pursue relocation of the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The department plans to move both agencies from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Mo.
The OIG report found that USDA may not have the budgetary authority to obligate appropriated funds related to the relocation of ERS offices. USDA did not receive congressional approval, which may have violated the Omnibus Act and the Antideficiency Act, or ADA, according to the OIG.
The report also found that USDA did not have the budgetary authority to obligate appropriated funds related to the relocation of NIFA offices because it did not meet a 60-day reporting deadline, which also may have violated the ADA.
If USDA’s relocation of NIFA offices requires the reprogramming or transfer of funds, the department must notify in writing and receive approval from the Committees on Appropriations of both houses of Congress at least 30 days in advance, according to the OIG. The inspector general’s office recommends USDA get the opinion of the Office of the General Counsel and take “appropriate action” if any ADA violations occurred.
The USDA disagrees with the OIG’s conclusion and says it bolsters the department’s argument that it has followed the proper steps.
“The Inspector General’s report affirms the Department has the legal authority to relocate ERS and NIFA,” said a USDA representative. “The budgetary provisions cited by the OIG report requiring committee approval have been ruled unconstitutional.”
In its report, the OIG responded to USDA’s position that the committee approval provisions are unconstitutional and without legal effect, noting that such provisions have been included in appropriations acts since 2015, and USDA previously took the position that those provisions are binding, citing recent litigation in which USDA argued it was obligated to seek approval from the committees.
“The department’s current and prior positions regarding the applicability of ‘committee approval’ provisions ... are not consistent,” the report states. “To reach management decision on this recommendation and to ensure consistent treatment going forward, the department needs to communicate, in writing, this change of interpretation to USDA leaders at the sub-cabinet and agency levels.”
“To say the department was out of step with budgetary requirements disregards the authority given to the Executive Branch by the U.S. Constitution,” the USDA spokesperson said. “The department is not required to abide by provisions that have been deemed unconstitutional, therefore we will not take the OIG’s recommendation to ignore nearly 40 years of precedent set by the Supreme Court, Office of Legal Counsel, and the Government Accountability Office — an arm of Congress.”
Since the Inspector General affirms the department has the legal authority and we do not agree with the unconstitutional budgetary provision, this case is closed.”
Sonny Ramaswamy, former chief of NIFA, said the inspector general’s findings challenge the relocation as “unauthorized and potentially illegal,” and hopes Congress will make the next move.
“Thus far, USDA has not listened to the experts. ... They have not provided the rationale or a cogent analysis of what they’re proposing to do,” he said. “Really, they’ve basically thumbed their noses, is what seems to be the approach they’re using.”
Ramaswamy is asking land-grant universities to oppose the relocation.
“They wield an incredible amount of strength,” he said. “The greatest agricultural and food enterprise the world has ever known is literally being destroyed.”