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The USDA violated rules trying to move agencies out of D.C., new House report finds

Rules including reprogramming department funds and not seeking public opinion were violated, a House Appropriations report says

Department of Agriculture sign in Washington, DC (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Department of Agriculture sign in Washington, DC (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In its drive to move two research-related agencies out of Washington, the USDA violated rules for reprogramming department funds, never sought public opinion and ignored appropriators’ request for a cost-benefit analysis, according to a House report released Monday.

The report, which will accompany the draft fiscal 2020 spending bill for the Agriculture Department, offers background on why lawmakers included provisions in the bill to bar the use of appropriated funds for moving the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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The full House Appropriations Committee will mark up the bill Tuesday. It would provide a total of $24.3 billion in discretionary funding, $1 billion more than the enacted level for fiscal 2019.

The report does not have the force of law but appropriators use it to explain their actions and send messages to agencies under their jurisdiction.

For example, the newly released report reflects the interest among lawmakers to have USDA clarify how farmers and states should proceed in expanding industrial hemp production made possible by the 2018 farm bill. The law removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and the oversight of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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The fiscal 2020 House bill proposes $16.5 million to cover implementation costs for putting rules in place. Appropriators use the report to direct the USDA to “provide the Committee with frequent status updates on the progress of implementation.”

Appropriators also use the report to convey concerns about the proliferation of products containing an ingredient from marijuana or hemp called cannabidiol, but popularly known as CBD. The Food and Drug Administration conducted public hearings last week as part of its process for determining CBD’s safety and effectiveness and setting standards to protect people’s health.

“The Committee expects the FDA to assert its commitment to identifying lawful federal regulatory pathways for CBD foods and dietary supplements if such pathways are consistent with protection of the public health,” the report said.

The report language is tougher in its review of USDA’s proposed move of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture beyond metropolitan Washington.

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Appropriators wrote USDA ignored their warning in the report accompanying the fiscal 2019 omnibus to slow down. Appropriators asked the department to include costs and a detailed analysis of benefits to agricultural research in moving the agencies.

Monday’s report said the department did not provide the documentation and moved ahead with a Federal Register notice seven days after notifying the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittees rather than waiting 30 days as required. The notice requested expressions of interest from universities, state agencies, commercial real estate firms and others. Ernst & Young, a professional services company hired by the USDA, whittled down 136 expressions of interest to three finalists and two backup sites.

“(USDA) has flatly refused numerous requests from this Committee and other members of Congress to provide the initial cost-benefit analysis that preceded the decision to go ahead with the proposal,” the report said.

Appropriators said they’ve drawn their own conclusions about the proposed relocations.

“These agencies’ mission is to achieve the best science through research that advances U.S. agriculture and our understanding of the agricultural economy. The Committee believes that the Department’s proposal puts that mission at risk and the Committee has therefore included bill language to prevent it,” the report said.

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