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Authors: Jim Geraghty

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BOOK: The Weed Agency
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One week later, Wilkins felt even less assured about the upcoming budget battle, and Humphrey’s mysterious confidence continued unabated. They met at the agency offices in the Department of Agriculture building at 14th Street and Independence Avenue, then grabbed a cab for the short ride to Bader’s lair in the Old Executive Office Building. Humphrey never walked in winter.

On the cab’s radio, Pat Benatar dared her suitors to demonstrate their marksmanship.

“So the plan is, what, Adam, hypnotize him?” asked Wilkins, fidgeting with the handle on his briefcase.

“Relax, Jack,” Humphrey instructed. “Bader feeds off of anxiety, and if you show weakness, suggest any concession, he will pounce. He will begin with bluster and an attempt to demonstrate dominance to set the tone of the meeting, like a great ape beating his chest. Ignore it all and appear unimpressed. Let me do the talking. And concur with anything I say.”

Wilkins nodded, and nervously cracked his knuckles.

Bader himself drove in from the Virginia suburbs. Despite his reputation as part of the Reaganite preppie vanguard, he had a soft spot for pop music. British rockers singing about one after another biting the dust put him in the appropriately ruthless mood for the workday.

He drummed the steering wheel and wiggled his tush to the beat in the driver’s seat, amusing the occasional commuter in the next lane. Next to the perpetually sunny president, Bader enjoyed his job more than anyone else in Washington.

The grandson of German immigrants, Bader grew up in Queens, New York, in a thoroughly middle-class lifestyle, the son of an accountant father and aspiring entrepreneurial mother.

Young Nick had learned to give his father, Reynard P. Bader, CPA, a wide berth from about mid-January to mid-April. Life returned to its relaxed and warm tone after the last of those who had filed extensions had submitted their paperwork. Mastering the ever-more-complicated tax code, coupled with the unpleasant news of telling other people how much they owed, tended to make Reynard short-tempered and prone to lengthy diatribes about individual and corporate minimum taxes, the alternative minimum tax, and the antifamily implications of the marriage penalty instituted by the Tax Reform Act of 1969.

Nick’s mother, Helena, spent much of his childhood running a struggling catering business; if the business cycle wasn’t squeezing her, some city health inspector or rule triggered some other headache. The Bader family dinner table conversations were full of lamentations and fury over the tax code and federal, state, and city regulations of every kind, and they cultivated a righteous indignation in the son.

Perfect math SAT scores had gotten him into Princeton University with a brief Naval ROTC stint. He worked on the Hill until jumping on Reagan’s bandwagon in 1976 and again in 1980. Now, he was not even thirty and working in the White House—or so he liked to say, even though technically he worked in the Old Executive Office Building.

Throughout the first weeks of the new administration, Bader prepared what he called Reagan’s “naughty list” of government programs and agencies to be zeroed out in the upcoming year’s budget proposal. A strange sense of honor and diligence drove him to look his foes in the eye as he broke the news. That sense of honor didn’t go so far as to actually sympathize with the individuals whose jobs he aimed to eliminate; he considered most of the people before him to be parasites sucking on the national treasury. In a world where the Soviets were on the march in Afghanistan, the federal government was spending many times an average American’s annual income on inane, pointless expenditures, such as $525,000 to convert 7 percent of the U.S. Coast Guard’s personnel files to microfiche.
3

Bader saw himself as righting the scales and unleashing a bit of holy wrath upon those who arrogantly assumed the American taxpayer would always pay whatever Washington demanded. He daydreamed of firing them all, but the civil service system made it nearly impossible to fire anyone, and removing
the threat of termination had a predictable impact on many government workers’ sense of accountability and work ethic.

Joining the White House team made Bader feel slightly hypocritical, as he would have to fill out all the forms and become one of those government employees—albeit, he assured himself, temporarily. The public sector—roughly eighty-one million Americans, once you counted everyone receiving one form of public assistance or another—had to be paid for by the seventy million Americans working in the private sector.
4
Sure, government employees would quickly insist that they paid taxes too—but all of the money that constituted their salaries originally came from tax dollars taken from the private sector.

A government cannot raise money by taxing its own spending. All of the money has to come from somewhere else, and that somewhere else was either the private sector or borrowing. In this dilemma, Bader breathed slightly easier, knowing that as president, Reagan was going to draw a hard line on deficit spending.

When he contemplated the injustice of it all, and the callousness with which the federal bureaucracy greeted every April 16, Bader couldn’t help but secretly feel a tinge of satisfaction at the tears and fury that greeted each meeting’s bad news. One distraught EPA administrator had actually opened a window and stepped out onto the ledge, threatening to jump, after one meeting discussing cuts to environmental enforcement; Bader dealt with the potential brouhaha by circulating an internal memo outlining new security measures for windows and ledges.
5

Today’s meeting appeared particularly sweet to Bader: Somehow President Carter had been conned into creating a separate federal agency whose sole duty was monitoring and combating weeds. On paper, wiping this agency off the bureaucratic flowchart would be among his easiest and most satisfying. But breaking the news to Adam Humphrey would be a particularly delicious moment, as the small subculture of budget hawks on Capitol Hill had considered Humphrey to be a Svengali of appropriations fights. Bader knew a few bits of his background: Harvard undergrad, then Georgetown Law. He had been the legislative counsel to both House and Senate committees. His reputation was impressive but strangely vague—besides his negotiation skills, few knew much about him.

Bader smiled as he parked the car. Adam Humphrey and the Agency of Invasive Species would, too, bite the dust.

Bader awaited them in a conference room within the Old Executive Office Building. On his second day on the job, he had noticed that each leg of the chairs had an adjustable screw-peg at the bottom for balance, and had adjusted the chairs so that the ones on the visitors’ side of the room were a quarter-inch shorter than the chairs on his side. Bader sat behind a conference table, flanked by two silent, stone-faced, square-jawed aides. He liked to think of them as the office assistant version of the Secret Service.

“Good morning, Mr. Bader!” Humphrey practically burst with good cheer upon entering the room. “Thank you so much
for taking time out of your busy schedule to give us the opportunity to further illuminate the services this agency provides to the American people.”

Bader didn’t rise to greet him, but merely nodded.

“You can dispense with the pleasantries, Humphrey.” He shot a sphincter-tightening smile at Wilkins and declared, “Sucking up to me isn’t going to make me like your pathetic joke of an agency.”

Humphrey’s smile didn’t budge. He gave a quick glance at Wilkins, as if to say, “See, right on schedule.” He subtly made a fist and softly thumped his chest. Wilkins bit his tongue to avoid laughing as they sat down.

“Mr. Bader, you have no idea how difficult it has been to work here in Washington, within the federal workforce, and yearn for that new sheriff to establish that new order. Indeed, I was greatly reassured to see our new era of fiscal rectitude ushered in with the most expensive inauguration festivities in American history.”

“Chalk that up to our predecessor’s bang-up job on containing inflation,” Bader snapped. “There’s a new sheriff in town, and the attitude toward those who waste taxpayers’ money is to hang ’em high.”

Neither of Bader’s aides had said a word after their terse introductions, but at this moment, for a split second, the one on the right pantomimed choking on a noose and smiled.

“We’ve got a lot of suspects to round up. Did you know this government spent more than a billion dollars on new furniture in the past ten years? At the same time, we’ve got seventy-eight—I counted—federally owned warehouses in the Washington area, storing piles upon piles of unused furniture, some wrapped in the original plastic.”
6

This was a monologue of righteous rage that Bader had rehearsed and performed in all of these meetings, and he enjoyed each one of them. He rose and strode to the window.

“You can see waste right outside this window. In July of 1979, they repaved the sidewalk outside the West Wing offices on the White House grounds.
Twice
. In one month!”
7

He strode back to the table, walking behind Humphrey and Wilkins.

“That same year, the Justice Department estimated that one out of every ten federal dollars is wasted or stolen. We’re talking
fifty billion dollars
, Humphrey. When the General Accounting Office set up a hotline to report all this waste and abuse, they received twenty-four hundred serious allegations in six weeks!” He consulted a memo before him. “Twenty-seven allegations of theft, twenty-two private uses of government property, seventy-two reports of employees not working a full workweek and fraudulently claiming that they did.”
8

Bader waited for Humphrey to squirm. Instead, Humphrey shook his head in sympathy of debatable sincerity.

“Mr. Bader, let me assure you I sympathize
deeply
with your effort to ensure waste and mismanagement are eliminated from the federal budget,” Humphrey began. “No doubt, no agency is perfect, and I am sure that in the four years since our founding, the Agency for Invasive Species has made the occasional budgetary errors.”

Bader sat and casually opened a file, readying his trap.

“Your agency opened up an office in Seattle and paid $100,000 for an abstract sculpture of rocks to adorn the entrance. A hundred grand for rocks, Humphrey! They cost $5.50
per ton from the supply company. The artist spent less than fifty bucks on materials.”
9

“Oh, Mr. Bader, now you’re reaching,” Humphrey casually swatted away the argument. “The American government has many striking examples of art and architecture—the White House, the Capitol Dome … why, the very building we’re in right now could be considered a piece of artwork. Is the Old Executive Office Building overpriced? Did the taxpayers get their money’s worth when they paid Daniel Chester French to carve the statue of Lincoln within the Memorial? Who really can put a fair price on a piece of art?”

“Sotheby’s,” shot back Bader. He took another look at his file.

“Your agency helped create the new forms for pesticide manufacturers at the Environmental Protection Agency, correct?”

“Indeed, Mr. Bader, I consider the new report system an utter triumph of data collection, one that posterity will salute as a—”

“This is the report that must be submitted quarterly, that requires the second-quarter report to include a complete duplicate copy of the first-quarter report, the third-quarter report to include duplicate copies of the first and second quarters, and the fourth-quarter to include copies of the reports for the first three quarters? Reports that can run three thousand pages each?”

“That would be, I believe, an accurate summary of our method to reduce the cost to taxpayers of collating and coordinating quarterly reports, yes.”

Bader had to chuckle at Humphrey’s audacity, claiming that his Byzantine requirements were a cost-saving measure.

“Mr. Humphrey, right now in Afghanistan, some scrawny mujahedeen who hasn’t eaten in three days is trying to fight off a Soviet battalion with a sharp stick. The Russian Bear is on the prowl in Central Asia, while the Arsenal of Democracy is spending billions to buy furniture that’s collecting dust in some warehouse! Do you really think this administration should spend one more red cent on your little band of weed-pickers?”

BOOK: The Weed Agency
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ads

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