USDA may have violated law with controversial office relocation

The US Agriculture Department’s inspector general has concluded the department may have violated the law when deciding to relocate two offices from the Washington, DC, area.

USDA has justified its decision to relocate the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture offices to the Kansas City area for both financial reasons and to put the researchers closer to the agricultural heartland.

But it is seen by critics as a swipe at the agency’s scientific expertise and was largely unwelcome with agency employees. Those offices unionized, and around 70% told union organizers they would not make the move. Some physically turned their backs on Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue at a public meeting where he addressed the move.

White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Friday that the move is part of the administration’s approach to “drain the swamp” in Washington.

“More than half the people quit. Now, it’s nearly impossible to fire a federal worker,” he said. “What a wonderful way to sort of streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”

The department told the inspector general it believes the law requiring it to obtain congressional approval before spending money to relocate offices is unconstitutional.

“USDA is not required to abide by unconstitutional laws,” the department’s general counsel, Stephen Vaden, wrote in a memo to the inspector general.

The inspector general wrote the unconstitutionality argument is “not consistent” with the department’s past position on laws requiring it to notify Congress before acting.

This is a significant policy change and “the Department needs to communicate, in writing, this change of interpretation to USDA leaders at the Sub-Cabinet and Agency levels,” the report reads. It was signed by the assistant inspector general for audits, Gil Harden.

The department has directed employees who are making the move to report by September 30 and rejected a proposal from the unions to allow some employees with hardships to continue working from the Washington area.