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Authors: Jim Geraghty

The Weed Agency

BOOK: The Weed Agency
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ALSO BY JIM GERAGHTY

Voting to Kill

Copyright © 2014 by Jim Geraghty

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Crown Forum, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
www.crownpublishing.com

CROWN FORUM with colophon is a registered trademark of Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Geraghty, Jim.
  The weed agency : a comic tale of federal bureaucracy without limits / Jim Geraghty.
    pages cm
  1. Political fiction. 2. Satire. I. Title.
  PS3607 E726W44 2014
  813′.6—dc23

2013048933

ISBN 978-0-7704-3652-0
eBook ISBN 978-0-7704-3653-7

Cover design by Michael Nagin
Cover illustration by Owen Richardson

v3.1

To Allison
,

for more than anyone will ever know

AUTHOR’S NOTE

A careful review of the Federal Register for the past thirty years will reveal that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agency of Invasive Species does not,
technically
, exist.

However, the Federal Interagency Committee for the Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds, the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, and the Federal Interagency Committee on Invasive Terrestrial Animals and Pathogens are very real. And the USDA does play a key role in the federal National Invasive Species Council, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Agency for International Development, NASA, the Department of Homeland Security, and eight other federal departments and agencies.

In short, each time in the following pages you encounter an anecdote that seems too wildly implausible to actually be a funded and officially authorized activity of the federal government, rest assured that the tale you are reading does not overstate such things; if anything, the sheer scope of such inexplicable and odd expenditures is understated for the sake of storytelling.

The gargantuan, ever-growing, ever-less-accountable, impossible-to-uproot federal bureaucracy is actually the sleeper issue of our time. It’s at the heart of the conservative critique of modern government: faceless bureaucrats writing incomprehensible regulations that complicate our lives for no good reason.

But if you put enough drinks—or sodium pentothal—in a liberal, they’ll usually admit that they find the federal government’s performance to be deeply disappointing. They envision so many ways that government can improve the lives of citizens, and enact program after program pursuing those goals … only to find money wasted, deadlines missed, departments and agencies burning through their budgets, complicated forms, and a mess of structures and procedures that even Rube Goldberg would feel an urge to simplify.

In my lifetime, three waves of Republicans came to Washington pledging to cut red tape and eliminate waste—the Reagan wave, the Gingrich wave, and the Bush wave—and all of them largely failed. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama arrived, full of ideas of how government could “put people first” and “work smarter” … with little to show for it. In some ways, the fight of the Left vs. the Right is the undercard fight. The real showdown—certain to intensify in the budget fights to come—is the Permanent Bureaucracy vs. Everyone Else.

The monetary waste is scandalous enough, but there’s a human waste, too. Despite the current zeal for demonizing Washington, each year thousands of young people come to the nation’s capital, eager to make the world a better place. Many of them end up working for the federal government—and utilizing only a fraction of their potential, often hammered into accepting a role as a cog in a large, self-propelled, unstoppable machine dedicated to its own perpetuation. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit works in the public sector now.

In September of 2004, a headline in the
New York Times
proclaimed:

Memos on Bush Are Fake but Accurate, Typist Says

So if, indeed, “fake but accurate” is a classification good enough for the esteemed pages of the
New York Times
, then what you are about to encounter in this story—characters whose existence has not been proven, witnessing historical events and interacting with actual lawmakers and high-level officials who have populated our nation’s capital since the early 1980s—can accurately portray the truth of how the government works …

—Jim Geraghty

1

FEBRUARY 1981

U.S. National Debt: $950 billion

Budget, USDA Agency of Invasive Species: $20.2 million

Jack Wilkins knew he was about to witness history: In the long history of budgetary fights, Adam Humphrey vs. Nicholas Bader was going to be the clash of the titans: Otto von Bismarck vs. Genghis Khan.

At stake was nothing less than the existence of the federal agency that employed Wilkins and Humphrey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agency of Invasive Species. President Jimmy Carter established the agency, dedicated to protecting American agriculture and gardens from the menace of invasive weeds, just four years earlier, and it stood out as a most likely target for cuts.

Humphrey’s official title at the agency was abbreviated as “USDA DFS BARM A-IS AD,”
1
but as the administrative director, the highest-ranking non-appointed position, agency employees considered him the only man within the agency who actually knew what was going on.

And yet, as the two men sat in Humphrey’s office in the U.S. Department of Agriculture building in Washington, Wilkins found his boss oddly quiet and almost too confident.

“We have a week to save our jobs,” Wilkins emphasized. He wasn’t surprised that his boss didn’t share his panic—Humphrey was legendarily unflappable—but unnerved that his boss seemed so engrossed by the articles about the incoming Reagan administration’s budget hawks that he seemed oblivious to the notion that their own jobs were among those they would try to cut.

“I thought that Gergen, Stockman, and the other barbarians coming in with the president would give us more time, but they just called and asked us to meet with Nick Bader Monday morning.” Wilkins exhaled. “Of all the folks we could deal with, Bader’s the worst. ‘Nick the Knife.’ ‘Big, Bad Bader.’ ”

Like most of Washington, Wilkins thought that “President Ronald Reagan” was a fanciful, silly notion that the electorate would never actually indulge as an experiment. But the 1980 election hadn’t even been that close, and now the early days of the administration revealed an even more unthinkable development: Reagan and his team hadn’t merely been
talking
about cutting the government; they were putting together a budget that would actually do it. The twenty-six-year-old Wilkins had jumped to the high-ranking assistant administrator position at the federal agency after reaching early burnout in the Carter White House, and now what he had been assured was a remarkably safe civil service job felt precarious.

Humphrey was only a decade older than Wilkins but the difference felt generational. Unlike Wilkins’s deepening anxiety, Humphrey shrugged off the incoming administration’s pledge to cut wherever possible; he had recently tried to reassure his younger assistant that those who pledge to uproot bureaucracy are among those most likely to succumb to it. He pointed out
that the president arrived in Washington with forty-eight separate task forces assigned to assist in the effort to reorganize the government, with more than 450 eager minds, mouths, and egos involved. The overall government-cutting bible of the merry band,
Mandate for Leadership
, published by the Heritage Foundation, was a 1,093-page book that represented the work of twenty task forces with three hundred participants, some of whom overlapped with Reagan’s task forces.
2
The president’s inner circle selected the dangerous right-winger David Gergen to set up the president’s Initial Actions Project with a forty-nine-page report laying out the plan to not get distracted in his first year in office.

Despite Humphrey’s quiet, inexplicable confidence, the Reagan team moved quickly and his little kingdom—a federal agency assigned the silly-sounding duty of ensuring the nation’s safety from invasive weeds—stood out, glaringly, high on the list of potential cuts.

The decisive meeting with the administration loomed a week away, with every expectation that the session would end with the administration announcing its intent to eliminate the Agency of Invasive Species entirely.

Wilkins had hoped the meetings would be with someone reasonable, someone like David Stockman, the congressman who was leaving the Hill to become Reagan’s new head of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Instead …

Bader
.

No name struck more fear into the hearts of government employees than the newly named Special Assistant to the President for Budgetary Discipline Nicholas Bader. Among federal employees, Bader was deemed slightly more threatening and evil than Charles Manson. Bader was jealous of Stockman’s
reputation as the administration’s most fearsome axman, and shortly after a
Newsweek
cover piece on Stockman, Bader cooperated with a
Time
profile on himself that called him, “Reagan’s bloody right hand, always grasping a meat cleaver and craving the chance to cut deeper and faster.” The accompanying caricature portrayed him as Jack the Ripper.

In a heavy-handed symbolism rarely found outside Herblock cartoons, slain women labeled with various government agencies’ three-letter acronyms were depicted lying at Bader’s feet as his head was thrown back, roaring with laughter. The comparison didn’t bother Bader in the slightest; he joked that the cartoonist intended the comparison of government agencies to prostitutes.

A
Time
’s reporter asked Bader what, if any, government spending was legitimate and necessary. The pugnacious Reaganite instantly and easily replied that at this moment in American history, all government resources should be refocused upon the threat of the Soviet Union, now on the march in Afghanistan and who knows where next.

BOOK: The Weed Agency
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