Bustos & LaHood write USDA seeking to end functional Hiring Freeze at the Peoria Ag Lab

Bustos & LaHood worked across the aisle in 2017 and 2018 to protect the Ag Lab from closure under the President’s budget

Peoria, IL – Today, Representatives Cheri Bustos (D-IL) and Darin LaHood (R-IL) sent a letter to United States Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky calling for an end to the hiring freeze at the Peoria Agriculture Research Lab. As is outlined in the letter, there are at least 25 research positions that are currently unfilled at the Ag Lab. Overall, the facility is staffed at just 63% of its capacity.

During a phone conversation with Congresswoman Bustos in February, Deputy Secretary told Congresswoman Bustos that an effective hiring freeze would remain in place, with the looming threat of closure from the President’s budget, until Congress passed an appropriations bill to keep the Ag Lab at work. Now, four weeks after Congress passed an appropriations bill to keep the Ag Lab open, Bustos and LaHood continued their work to boost employment at the Ag Lab.

“The Ag Lab in Peoria does tremendous work to improve our agricultural economy, both locally and nationally,” said Congresswoman Cheri Bustos. “Congressman LaHood and I have worked together to keep this important work where it belongs, in Peoria. Now, we are continuing this effort by pushing to hire more people to help the Ag Lab achieve its mission. By bolstering the Ag Lab, we’ll help ensure its continued success into the future.”

“Funding Peoria’s Ag Lab was the first step in maintaining this vital part of our agricultural economy, but now we must help it reach its full potential,” said Rep. LaHood. “Congresswoman Bustos and I are requesting an end to the hiring freeze to bring in more researchers and staff, ensuring that the Ag Lab can continue its decades of agricultural research breakthroughs. Doing so will be a win not just for the lab itself, but for the entire nation.”

Below is the full text of the letter Reps. Bustos and LaHood sent today. Click here for a PDF of a signed copy of the letter.

April 20, 2018

The Honorable Stephen Censky

Deputy Secretary

U.S. Department of Agriculture

201 14th St SW

Washington, D.C. 20227
Dear Deputy Secretary Censky,

Thank you again for the discussion earlier this year regarding the ongoing staffing issues at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) in the district. Unfortunately, it is our understanding that the hiring issues are persisting despite the passage of the FY18 full year appropriations. We are requesting, once again, that the Department immediately take steps to begin filling vacancies at that lab and to discontinue the harmful practice of basing staffing decision on rejected budget proposal. There are at least 25 research positions currently unfilled at the NCAUR. While the lab is able to operate its research mission with 223 full time employees, its current capacity is nearly 350. The hiring freeze is exacerbating resource and staffing challenges directly impacting agriculture research and the rural economy.

We have appreciated not only the opportunity for a dialogue with the Department on this issue, but also your continued engagement. As you know, the President’s FY18 budget proposed the closure of a USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) laboratory in Peoria, Illinois. In July 2017, the House Appropriations Committee funded the lab, and in doing so, explicitly rejected the Administration’s proposed closure.

At a hearing to review the President’s FY18 budget proposal, Secretary Perdue said, “I would admit to you today that I think research is one of those areas where we may have missed the mark … because research is really the basis of our ag productivity today.

“I believe if American manufacturing had had the same level of basic research, applied research, and had a delivery system like the extension service, we wouldn’t be talking about the demise of American manufacturing today. That’s how strongly I believe in research … and our ARS. I hope we can appropriately find the money to fund them.”

That desire to fund ARS aligns with the USDA’s 2018 Legislative Principles announced in January. Secretary Perdue emphasized the necessity for both “tools and resources necessary to attract and retain a strong USDA workforce” and also providing USDA “full authority to responsibly manage properties and facilities under its jurisdiction.”

During your phone call with Congresswoman Bustos in February, 2018, you indicated that hiring at the NCAUR was effectively frozen due to the President’s FY18 budget that proposed closing the lab. You further indicated that the effective blanket freeze in place at NCAUR would be lifted when Congress completed a full FY18 appropriations bill. However, though four weeks have passed since Congress completed that bill on March 23, 2018, it is our understanding that NCAUR still does not have the authority to fill vacancies.

Further, we are concerned that we have heard contradicting updates, including that the de facto hiring freeze remains in place. We believe it would be unacceptable for the Administration to continue the hiring freeze in light of consistent, clear instructions to the contrary.

Congress has repeatedly signaled to the Administration through our budget and through the appropriations process that the lab should continue its important work and we hope to see that reflected in the Administration’s actions. In light of the ongoing low commodity prices, due in part to Administration actions that have threatened or limited both domestic and trade markets for our crops, it is even more important that we continue the research necessary to develop new products and new uses that can help create new market opportunities for our producers.

With this in mind, we again urge you to rapidly address these ongoing hiring issues at the lab. Further, please let me know what else we, and our colleagues in Congress, can do to make sure the NCAUR has the ability to advance the scientific innovation and excellence that drive and grow American agriculture and the economy.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Sincerely,

 

Cheri Bustos                                                                             Darin LaHood

Member of Congress                                                                Member of Congress