Authors: Jim Geraghty
A WEB ADDRESS PORTAL PAGE DATABASE
U.S. National Debt: $4.8 trillion
Budget, USDA Agency of Invasive Species: $91.2 million
In two years, Ava had barely interacted with Humphrey. Once in a great while, the IT department would press-gang her into helping with senior staff’s frantic calls for help with their computers. She had heard all of the apocryphal IT horror stories:
Your mouse is not a foot pedal. The pop-out disk drive is not a cup holder. “You keep telling me, ‘press any key’—where’s the ‘any’ key?”
If the Central Intelligence Agency was anything like the Agency of Invasive Species, Ava feared, any foreign power would be able to crack into any database by typing in the password “PASSWORD” or “1234.” Her innovative, groundbreaking technique of turning the computer off and turning the computer on again usually generated amazed stares that would have been fit for witnessing alchemy.
Of course, since she was cuter than the usual tech-gnomes scurrying up from the IT department, she noticed men tended to call with new problems again, shortly after her first visit.
Now she was in Humphrey’s office, and he and Wilkins were peppering her with intense questions about her proposal for her “Web address portal page database interconnectivity system”—queries
that revealed they barely understood what it did, how it worked, and why it would be useful.
“So you’re saying that we could share all of this information through joint-access databases, but … why wouldn’t we just pick up the phone and tell the person the same information?” Wilkins asked.
“You can still do that, but with this, it doesn’t matter whether the person is at their desk or wherever—the information is there, 24/7, for anyone to access and use as they need it,” she explained, wondering why he didn’t seem to grasp this the first two times she discussed how agency employees would use the system. “And we’re talking about massive amounts of information. Data. Weed counts, everything we put into our reports. Data you can put into spreadsheets and charts and all of that.”
“But that’s what fax machines are for.”
She sighed. “No more paper jams. No toner replacements. No more
PC LOAD LETTER
“What you’re suggesting would take money, no doubt,” Humphrey said, making some sort of calculation in his head. “Our current budget, clearly, does not include room for the expenditures necessary to bring this to fruition.”
“Oh, almost certainly, but I don’t think it would be
expensive, and in the long run—”
“No, Ms. Summers, that’s fine. The cost is … an issue we will bring up in February’s meeting. In fact, I may need you to emphasize that to our congressional friends.”
She nodded, then realized the enormity of the task she was being asked to perform.
“Part of me can’t believe this!” she said. “I have been waiting two years to get anybody in this building to listen to this, and now all of a sudden you want me to present all of this to members of Congress.”
“This … technobabble may be all that stands between
ourselves and budgetary oblivion, Miss Summers,” said Humphrey. “So it had better be good.”
Wilkins took a long look at Ava.
“When we have the meeting, ditch the fishnets,” he ordered. “If Gingrich answers our invitation, you’ll be meeting with the first Republican Speaker of the House in forty years.”
“She’ll be speaking to a room full of men,” Humphrey corrected. “Keep the fishnets.”
He hastily sketched out a map of the agency’s offices within the Department of Agriculture building.
“I want Gingrich and anyone who comes with him to come the long way through the offices though the conference room, and everyone looking their best—diligent. Professional. If I see any pictures of President Clinton, Hillary Clinton, or Vice President Gore on anyone’s desk, I will set them on fire.”
Ava was fairly certain Humphrey meant the desk pictures and not the occupants, but decided not to ask for a clarification.
“We need to ensure that the phones are ringing as they walk through—we want to greet them but also look busy, a beehive of activity. In the conference room, find some of the softer lightbulbs and find whatever old maps we have and frame them and mount them. Older the better, Civil War or Revolutionary would be ideal. I want the Speaker to wonder if he’s wandered into the Smithsonian.”
They exited Humphrey’s office, looked at the bull pen of cubicles, and examined the conference room. Humphrey paced the path the visiting members of Congress would walk on the way to their meeting.
“And Wilkins, I don’t care if you have to go scuba diving in the La Brea Tar Pits, we absolutely must have a mounted dinosaur bone!”
U.S. National Debt: $4.815 trillion
Budget, USDA Agency of Invasive Species: $112.2 million
It was like a parade: The new congressmen kept coming—red ties, striped ties, comb-overs, white hair, no hair, pale suits, dark suits, striped suits, brown suits, the occasional woman in a red power suit. Mixed in with the crowds of the first day were the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, who performed in the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria for the members and their families. Speaker Gingrich saluted the Rangers, declaring that they were “multiethnic role models” with an emphasis on “family values” and “anti-drug” messages that fit nicely with GOP political themes.
Adam Humphrey did not want to leave any detail overlooked in the upcoming battle over the fate of the Agency of Invasive Species, and so he had been desperately trying to arrange every possible meeting with every remaining ally on Capitol Hill.
The second day of the new Congress, Humphrey had an emergency meeting with Congressman Hargis, who was distinctly cranky at being in the minority for the first time in his thirty-two years in office. On Humphrey’s way out he was surprised to find Bader, who had apparently been lingering in the hallway, waiting for him.
“Hiya, Humphrey,” Bader grinned.
“Mi—Congressman Bader,” Humphrey gathered his composure. “Please tell me you’ve spent the entire day waiting in the hallway stalking me.”
“My new office is just down the hall,” Bader said with a
gleeful nod. “I had an intern watch Hargis’s Temple of Pork and let me know when you entered.”
“I’m sure the young lady is already finding her time in congressional service well spent.”
“Well, we’re a busy group, much to cut. The whole federal government’s going to look a lot smaller pretty soon.”
“I assure you, I’ve heard that pledge many times from your predecessors, Congressman.”
Bader stepped a little too close for comfort. “Yeah, but we’re not like the Republicans you’ve seen before, Humph,” Bader said softly but with distinct menace. “We actually mean what we say.”
“Mmm, yes, I was positively inspired when I saw the new majority leader declaring that perhaps term limits might no longer be necessary now that Republicans were running the show.”
Bader was enjoying his opportunity to gloat. “This is a revolution, Humphrey. We’re gonna turn this town upside down. Your free ride just came to an end. This time it’s different. We have public opinion on our side.”
Humphrey’s mood darkened, and his tone shifted slightly, as though he quickly tired of sparring with Bader.
“You have the shallow, superficial support of a voting public that has the attention span of an over-caffeinated ferret,” Humphrey warned quietly. “We have jobs, pensions, benefits packages, careers, long-term contracts on the line. You are fighting for an abstract idea, while my allies and I are fighting for quite tangible benefits. Good luck, Congressman Bader. When the ground falls out beneath your feet, I will be there, smiling, reminding you that I warned you of this.”
He turned away.
“Better freshen up that resume, Humphrey!” Bader cracked as his old foe stormed away.
U.S. National Debt: $4.854 trillion
Budget, USDA Agency of Invasive Species: $112.2 million
On his way into the Agency of Invasive Species’ conference room, the new Speaker noticed that the
magazine declaring him “Man of the Year” was front and center upon tables in both the lobby
a small table outside the conference room, and smiled.
Newt Gingrich was a busy man, and some on his staff had doubted whether a meeting with agency officials was worth the time commitment. But one of the GOP’s most intense freshman, a rising star from suburban Philadelphia, had been urging the new Speaker relentlessly that the agency should be among the first cuts enacted by the new GOP Congress. Gingrich found Bader a bit grating in his insistence, but when he heard that the agency’s management had been desperately requesting a meeting with the new Speaker, Gingrich figured it was worth rolling his motorcade down Independence Avenue. Security, motorcades, a surrounding staff—Gingrich moved a lot like a president now, and he liked it.
He and his phalanx of dark-suited aides entered the conference room, where Humphrey, Wilkins, and assorted other
agency staffers awaited them, looking their best and trying to hide the sweat on their hands. Ava stood out like a pinup girl at an accountants’ convention.
Wilkins had failed to secure a dinosaur bone as Humphrey had demanded—it turned out they were expensive and rare—and so they had found a mounted skull of a hippopotamus for sale from a university’s biology department. They removed the small brass plaque identifying the species and hoped no one noticed. Once everyone was seated, it became clear that the giant skull would obstruct views across the table, and so Wilkins and another staffer moved it to the side table.
“I hope you appreciate the significance of my taking time to come here and illuminate your new role,” Gingrich said as he settled in. “Very few people understand the scale of change that this past election brought, and how far-reaching it will be. Frankly, it takes a fundamentally, profoundly transformational figure like myself to implement a change on this scale. These figures have come along periodically in American history when the national spirit required it most: Washington at Valley Forge, Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, Lincoln from Fort Sumter to the Battle of Five Forks …”
Judging from his waistline, he’s been losing the battle of five forks
, thought Wilkins.
“Theodore Roosevelt at San Juan Hill, Franklin Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor, and Ronald Reagan …” he paused, contemplating the right historical moment to cite. “Throughout his presidency,” he concluded.
“The task before me involves harnessing my leadership in all of the manners they demonstrated, simultaneously—oh, and Edison and Woodrow Wilson, too—and enacting an unprecedented agenda of fundamental reform. We are an idea-oriented national campaign without a presidential leader yet, equaled
only by Henry Clay and the War Hawks of 1810 and the Progressive movement of 1910.”
Gingrich continued discussing the centennial echoes of his movement for ten minutes straight before a brief throat-clearing from an aide reminded him that he was supposed to be breaking the bad news to the collected agency employees.
“We are at a crossroads as a nation,” Gingrich said. “We are fundamentally reevaluating the role between the citizen and government, and shifting the power away from unelected, know-it-all, smug, out-of-touch, Washington elitist bureaucrats.” Gingrich looked around the room. “No offense.”
“None taken, Mr. Speaker,” Humphrey lied.
“We’re shifting power toward the people, who indeed know what is best for themselves. It makes no sense to allocate millions upon millions to a federal agency just to keep track of what weeds and bugs are where and recommend what ways to treat it and allocate grants to farmers to ensure response. Not when every state has its own state-level agriculture department office doing the same, and many localities and agribusiness giants have their own research and efforts on these matters. It’s enormously duplicative and redundant and, frankly, stupid. So at this point, we’re preparing legislation to zero out the funding for this agency and convert it all to block grants, so that states can manage their own weed-abatement programs.”
For a moment, Wilkins wondered if an ulcer could spontaneously form within a matter of seconds, as his stomach twisted and burned with new anxiety.
As bad as we feared
, he thought.
Humphrey gently drummed his fingers on the conference room table. “Mr. Speaker, while I disagree with the specific direction of your proposal, I must say your vision is positively Churchillian. Actually, I couldn’t decide whether it was Churchillian or more like Charlemagne.”
“I had debated that myself,” Gingrich nodded. “In fact, I had actually seen echoes of Confederate Army Captain John Carter, who during the Barsoom campaign—”
“Mr. Speaker, I hate to interrupt,” Humphrey said as he seized the floor, lest Gingrich be overcome by his urge to resume his history lecture. “But if you will permit me a moment to update you on our latest efforts to deal with the problems you have so rightly identified, I think we may have some ideas that are … appropriate to these historical national crossroads you so astutely foresaw. Our agency is going through a metamorphosis, Mr. Speaker, and at the heart of that all-encompassing change is
,” Humphrey confidently declared, having memorized all of the futurist catchphrases from Gingrich’s earlier books. “We believe that the clearest path to the freer, more prosperous future you envision is through ‘Weed.gov,’ a cross-referenced interactive database that exchanges information at the speed of electrons about how best to protect the American bounty from invasive species. Miss Summers?”
The fishnet-clad wonder popped out of her chair, checking to make sure her computer wires were all connected. She began showcasing a display that was like a slide projector, but used some software she had bought herself and brought into the building in violation at least six or seven different federal acquisition regulations. The mysterious “PowerPoint 4.0” icon disappeared and she began showcasing stock photography of people screaming and expressing frustration.