IG Says Trump USDA Transfers Are Illegal, but Ernst Thinks Her Bill Fixes It

August 7, 2019 Updated: August 8, 2019

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump’s relocation of two small offices from the nation’s capital to Kansas City. Missouri, may have been done illegally because the move lacked prior congressional approval, according to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Inspector General (IG).

In a report made public Aug. 5, the IG said the USDA has the legal authority under a 1953 statute to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), but questioned whether there was sufficient budget authority for the actions.

The IG also suggested expenditures by USDA on the relocation may violate a longstanding federal law that bars the government from using tax dollars for purposes other than those approved by Congress.

The ERS has 250 employees, while the NIFA has 340.

The ERS is tasked with anticipating “trends and emerging issues in agriculture, food, the environment, and rural America, and to conduct high-quality, objective economic research to inform and enhance public and private decision making,” according to its website.

Funding “agricultural research, education, and extension to help solve national challenges in agriculture, food, the environment, and communities,” is NIFA’s main activity, according to its website.

Neither agency’s relocation has been completed and the IG report could delay or even halt the planned action while the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents ERS employees, mounts expected regulatory and judicial challenges.

“We found that the [Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1953] provides the department the legal authority to make operational decisions that include the realignment of agencies within the department,” the IG stated in its report.

But the IG pointed to potential budgetary authority issues, noting that “while the general provisions of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018 (the ‘Omnibus Act’) provides certain budgetary authorities to the department, there are established limitations on such authorities to realign or relocate offices.”

In addition, the IG said the USDA “has not obtained congressional approval, as required by Section 717(a) of the Omnibus Act, and has not complied with the reporting deadline requirement in Section 753 of the Omnibus Act.”

The IG report was prompted by a Sept. 6, 2018, letter from then-House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a non-voting member, requesting a review of the proposed relocations.

The IG stated USDA officials obligated nearly $170,000 for a private contractor to review expressions of interest the government received from firms hoping to help with the relocation.

But the USDA was required to seek congressional approval “prior to its reprogramming and use of appropriated funds for the purpose of such relocation. That prior approval did not appear to have been granted,” the IG stated.

“This obligation of funds may have also violated the Anti-Deficiency Act (ADA), which prohibits government employees from involving the federal government in a contract or obligation for the payment of money before an appropriation is made,” the IG warned.

The ADA was first signed into law in 1870 and it provides fines and jail time as penalties for federal employees convicted of violating the statute.

While no government worker has ever been charged, tried, and convicted in a federal court for ADA violations, it isn’t uncommon for lesser penalties to be enforced administratively, including suspension without pay for a period of time or termination.

Department officials strongly disagreed with the IG report, citing an Office of General Counsel (OGC) opinion and a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision, as well as numerous statutes, that grant Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue “the authority to expend the necessary funds. Those provisions have language providing budgetary authority for such expenditures, provided there is notice given to, and approval granted by, the appropriations committees in each house of Congress to make those expenditures.”

Perdue provided the notice, according to the officials.

Despite the small number of employees involved in the proposed transfers, the USDA action has grabbed attention on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

“I am very troubled by the recent Inspector General report, which found that the Trump Administration misused Congressional funds in relocating the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA),” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told The Epoch Times on Aug. 7. “The report raises serious questions about the legality of these moves, which is why I will keep working with my colleagues to oppose the misguided and mishandled relocation of these critical research agencies.”

But Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) wants more federal departments and agencies to be relocated out of Washington to put their employees closer to the people and industries they regulate.

“Instead of housing federal agencies in swampy D.C., let’s move them outside of the Beltway and closer to the folks who know the needs of their states, farms, and businesses best,” Ernst said July 25.

She has introduced legislation to streamline and clarify the requirements of the relocation process.