Bill Clark / AP
"It's almost impossible to fire a federal worker," White House chief of staff and budget Mick Mulvaney told the audience at the South Carolina Republican dinner in August. "I know because many of them work for me, and I tried. You can't do it."
But Mulvaney assured his audience that the Trump administration seems to have found an escape. “Simply telling people,‘ You know what? We will take you out of the bubble, out of the ring road, out of this liberal refuge in Washington, DC, and we will move you to the real part of the country, "and they gave up," he explained. "What a wonderful way to rationalize the government and do what we have not been able to do in a long time."
Mulvaney was referring to the June announcement of the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, when he told 181 staff members in the USDA Economic Research Service office that in just three months they would be relocated to new offices over a thousand miles away in Kansas City, Missouri. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture, another small USDA scientific agency, would also move to the Midwest. ERS conducts research on agriculture and economics, and Perdue said the measure would help staff be closer to the agricultural regions of the Midwest and save taxpayer dollars. In return, officials in Kansas City offered $ 26 million in incentives, but Perdue refused to disclose the details. Workers could uproot their lives and move or lose their jobs in government.
The announcement was received with surprise. The deadline to decide whether or not an employee would move to Kansas City expired on September 30, but the union negotiated the option for employees to request another 60-day extension. It seems that the majority had already made their decision before the deadline. Of the 181 employees who were ordered to relocate, only 16 did. Another 24 will remain in their positions in DC. But a whopping 141 employees, or 78 percent, abandoned ERS altogether. The relocation also resulted in the decline in the number of women working in research and administrative positions. According to the data provided to Mother jones, women constituted 36 percent of the employees before the move. Now, that number has been reduced to 30 percent. The numbers are even more amazing in Kansas City. Of the 27 people who work there, only one is a woman.
"None of us thought it would happen," said Laura Dodson, interim vice president of the ERS union. "I didn't have the authority, I wasn't backed by Congress, and all the scientists in our field said no (move the office)." The USDA inspector general issued a report saying that while Perdue had the legal authority to move the offices, Congress approval is needed before any agency can be reorganized. Perdue argued that this provision was unconstitutional and continued.
Those who left did not necessarily give up large salaries or flashy work, what they lost was security. Public servants' salaries range from more than $ 19,000 to about $ 138,000, but federal employment is also accompanied by generous retirement packages and quality medical care. Today, 364,000 federal government employees call the Washington DC metropolitan area home. Since Reagan insisted that "government is the problem," federal employees have been demonized by those on the right, and the Trump administration has not been the exception. Donald Trump campaigned to "drain the swamp," and that effort seems to include weakening civil service in government agencies. "It was done with malice," argues Dodson. "They intended for us to leave."
One of those employees who chose to leave is Laura Tiehen, a senior economics researcher who had been in the agency for a little over 20 years but didn't want to retire. Tiehen recalls that she and her colleagues first realized that something was wrong in August 2018, when the ERS administrator, Tiehen's boss who was a career officer and not a political representative, sent an email saying I was being transferred to a different USDA agency. "Clearly, it was not his decision," Tiehen explains, "tons of rumors were flying." Two hours later, Tiehen received an email from Secretary Perdue. His office would move within a year, but did not offer details.
When the government closed for six weeks at the end of 2018 until the beginning of 2019, Tiehen and his colleagues felt confident that the Trump administration could not organize that movement into what was becoming an increasingly shorter time frame. But then came the June 13 announcement that made it official. "You have about two and a half months to tear out your roots, get a job for your spouse, take your children to school," says Tiehen, "it was an absolute shock."
J. David Cox, national president of the federal union of employees of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in June: "The USDA has not provided rational justification to employees, Congress or their stakeholders for this movement. what it will do is harder for agencies to coordinate with other science and research agencies. " He also described the relocation as "a way to reduce the workforce and silence the parts of the investigation of the agencies that the administration considers inconvenient. ” Which would presumably mean any research on the benefits of SNAP for low-income households or scientific research on climate change, both of which the ERS studied.
Tiehen has relatives in Kansas City and contemplated moving, but her husband who works at the National Institutes of Health would also have had to quit her job. "It was an agonizing decision," he says about taking early retirement from a job he really enjoyed. "Given the speed and recklessness of the movement, it just didn't feel like an agency where I would still feel I had a satisfactory job." When he left, he was working on a database on how states are administering the Nutrition Assistance Program Supplement, the food program for low-income and elderly people. "Many researchers trust it," she says.
ERS staff work on studies related to agriculture, the economy and food security. The employees left behind dozens of unfinished reports and studies, some of which will never be completed. A memo circulated to ERS superiors, first reported by Politician, It describes a large number of reports that will be delayed. These studies include one that analyzes food security for military veterans of working age, the impact of the opioid crisis and the impact of food stamps in the post-recession era. The final decision was taken so abruptly that no plans were put in place to discover how to finish certain projects.
"We all knew that this movement was meaningless and was driven by ideology about science," said Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) In August. "Secretary Perdue has some serious questions to answer, and this fight is not over."
In the past, the notion of decentralizing the federal government enjoyed some bipartisan support. "This idea has been used to make the government work better, and sometimes it has been used to destroy the government," says David Fontana, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University. Some conservatives like the idea because they see it as a way of cutting back the government; Progressives have also supported it as a strategy to spread power and resources more evenly throughout the country. "It has to be a deliberate process," Fontana explains. “Not only why, but also where. The process is different if you move to Colorado, Oklahoma or New York City. ” In contrast to the way this was handled in the USDA, it would also be more prudent to incorporate relocation and offer employees an option, even if it means that the government "would create a new outpost and not ask anyone to move, "he says.
By reducing the federal government, as in most things, the Trump administration has not opted for the incremental approach. And the USDA is not the only agency that Trump officials have interrupted. In July, the interim director of the Land Administration Office, William Perry Pendley, announced that most of the agency's employees would be relocated to Grand Junction, Colorado. Pendley has not been approved by the Senate for the role. How E&E News reported last month, the relocation announcement was received with disdain:
None of the more than 200 employees present expressed their support for the measure, exposing the true feelings of BLM staff in Washington about the proposal announced in July and authorized by the Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt. Some employees wore black at the meeting as a show of protest.
Employees questioned the wisdom, timing and purpose of the planned movement, as well as the "moral courage" of their leaders. They complained about political motivations and a general lack of transparency: the agency has not yet told employees exactly who will be asked to move.
But officials may want to rethink their plans to quickly relocate BLM employees. After the mass exodus, ERS administrators are now forced to ask certain employees to return for a short period of time, and that includes Tiehen. He was asked to return "in the short term to close some gaps," but he is still deciding if he will. Meanwhile, the ERS office in DC is reduced to a handful of people. "I was walking through the halls," says Dodson. "It's empty. Everyone's gone."