Authors: Jim Geraghty
U.S. National Debt: $4.2 trillion
Budget, USDA Agency of Invasive Species: $72.6 million
Many new faces arrived in Washington in 1993, but five would prove most influential on the Agency of Invasive Species.
A trio of young women began work at the agency in the spring: communications office staffer Lisa Bloom, conference and event coordinator Jamie Caro, and technology systems analyst Ava Summers.
They had been hired around the same time by Carl, a crusty gray-haired veteran of the human resources department, who had moved to the Department of Agriculture from the Pentagon because he wanted something simpler and less bureaucratic. The three young women, all attractive, became derisively nicknamed “Carl’s Angels” by agency veterans, cynical about attractive young women being hired by older men. Yet when a coworker called them that to their faces, the three laughed it off and instantly struck the gun-holding poses.
Lisa Bloom, a bright-eyed, freckled brunette, aspired to
emulate the new White House press secretary, Dee Dee Myers. Like most of the young women in Washington, Lisa had a not-so-secret crush on George Stephanopoulos. She once saw him at an Au Bon Pain in Foggy Bottom and squealed that he had been even more adorable in person, “like a little Chihuahua in an Armani suit.”
She was quick to insist it was not mere lust that drove her Stephanopophilia but what he represented—that he was not much older than they were and yet he had already worked his way to the heights of power and influence. Only thirty-two, he already enjoyed a trusted relationship with the president of the United States. Lisa was certain that in this new era, a calcified, stodgy old order would be thrown off and that the world would finally see that a woman as young as herself could help set the agenda of the entire federal government.
As a political science major and College Democrat at the University of Maryland, Lisa had checked all the boxes of the young and politically minded, like protesting the Gulf War as another Vietnam and emphasizing the importance of a president familiar with the latest developments in supermarket checkout line technology. But what had most bugged her was how government itself had become this distant, out-of-touch entity. Under President George H. W. Bush, the federal government was a bunch of guys in wire-rimmed glasses whose sole purpose was to publicize drug war seizures and to complain about sitcom storylines. To
people, she would complain, the primary purpose of government was to hide embarrassment of the vice president.
Worst of all, Lisa thought, in 1992 America had endured unbelievable economic deprivation that had lasted for months—unemployment had reached 7.8 percent! She had been too young to vote in 1988 but proudly voted for Clinton in 1992,
’s Jann Wenner promising, “he’ll be the first rock and roll president in American history.”
With the end of the Cold War, government could finally serve the people the way it meant to, and that meant communicating more directly, more effectively, and more openly. Even about weeds.
The Agency of Invasive Species wasn’t the most glamorous government public affairs job, but Lisa figured that she ought to have some government experience under her belt before she started working on campaigns. She had her career carefully planned out already: In 1996, she would become a press secretary on some Democrat’s senatorial campaign, and by 2000, she would be Al Gore’s press secretary, before becoming White House press secretary in January 2001.
She wished she could skip a step or two; she was more interested in articulating a policy than touting a particular candidate. A part of her feared that being a press secretary for a candidate would feel kind of dirty and degrading, like a yearlong sales pitch.
Jamie Caro was a blond burst of sunshine within the gray corridors of the Department of Agriculture. While all of Carl’s Angels cut strikingly attractive figures, the cheery Jamie endured the most relentless attention from men (and the occasional woman).
Jamie’s father, a Miami lawyer, had the bejeezus scared out of him during the Cuban Missile Crisis and spent her childhood a bit obsessed about a peaceful end to the Cold War. While other South Florida families talked about the Dolphins or Hurricanes at the dinner table, Jamie’s family discussions were heavily weighted toward the deployment of Peacekeeper
missiles in Western Europe, the Strategic Defense Initiative, Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, the shooting down of KAL 007, and all other minute movements in the Doomsday Clock.
She grew up with her father glued to the television and radio during the big summits—Geneva, Reykjavik, Moscow, Washington. Her father was elated at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and at the University of Miami, Jamie studied international affairs. She relished the romance and grandeur of international diplomacy, and believed that history was made at summits like Malta.
She had thought about getting a master’s degree and interning at the United Nations, but the AIS job gave her a chance for some quick experience in government, a steady income, health insurance, and, she hoped, a chance to make some connections in Washington. While she knew little about agriculture, she knew invasive species could be an international issue and figured she might, someday, organize some worldwide summit on locusts for the UN.
The third young woman creating a stir in the Department of Agriculture hallways was Ava Summers. She quickly became known as “Fishnets” for her stockings, fairly out of place within the staid federal workplace.
Early in her tenure, one short-lived boyfriend urged her to not wear them to work.
“You look like a hooker.”
“I majored in computer science. I’m a girl who can quote
. I work for a federal agency that studies weeds. I did it with you up against a wall the night we met when everybody told me you were a standard-issue preppie. When do you think I started caring what other people think?” she asked.
And that was the end of that boyfriend.
Like many in Washington, Ava was smart, and also like many, restless and eager to leave a mark on the world. If you
were young and wanted to make a lot of money, you majored in finance and set your sights on Wall Street. If you craved fame, you set out for Hollywood; rumor had it they were handing out sitcoms to stand-up comedians at LAX. If you wanted to invent some amazing new gadget or tool, you went to Redmond, Washington, or to Silicon Valley. But if you came to D.C., you were driven by something bigger.
The focus of that drive could be almost anything—abortion, foreign policy, the environment, economics. Young people in Washington tended to know a bit, or even a lot, about something beyond themselves and the pop culture of the moment. The twentysomethings of the nation’s capital tended to be a little more interesting to talk to than their flannel-wearing peers elsewhere, who had dreams of fame and fortune but little sense of how to get them.
To the rest of the country, Washington was boring and stuffy; to the young people inside the Beltway, it was Nerdvana, an endangered-species preserve for geeks. It was a national dumping ground for all the folks who cared a lot about things that most people didn’t care about much at all—the rights of women in Afghanistan, or the habitat of the snail darter, or aggressive Chinese naval maneuvers off Taiwan, or suburban sprawl, or early childhood foreign language education, or the homeless.
It wasn’t merely the fishnets that made Ava stand out when she walked to work; she had a tongue ring, liked to add pink streaks to her straight black hair, and for all her reflexive dismissal of “girly” interests, her wardrobe seemed to be always changing. She grew bored easily, and her caffeine intake ensured that her mind tended to move in frenetic spasms of creativity.
Yet in between her effortless flirtation and voracious appetite for complicated ideas and topics that intimidated all but
the übergeeks, she had a big vision: Ava believed that with the Cold War ending and this mysterious “Internet” coming down the pike, a few millennia’s worth of top-down decision-making in human history was ending and an era of collective networks was coming. She foresaw a society unleashing previously unthinkable capacities of human potential, just around the corner. Soon gobs of information would flow in every direction, with less restriction and fewer gatekeepers. Eventually these quantum leaps in technology would leave everyone connected to one another, eradicating usual limits of distance and physical barriers.
It didn’t take much to get her talking about these topics, and she often left listeners excited and confused.
As for why she was working at the agency, she believed that rapidly changing technology could usher in a new era of government being responsive to the needs of the public. Finally, government would
Of course, in her first days there, Ava thought she had stepped into a time machine, as all of the computers were from the late 1980s.
The other two important arrivals of 1993 were President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
It was March when Bill Clinton announced that his National Performance Review—more commonly known by its slogan, “Reinventing Government”—would be headed by Gore. A T-shirt sold on the street outside the White House featured Gore and Clinton as MTV’s pair of losers, Vee-Pee-vus and Bubba-head, with the slogan,
REINVENTING GOVERNMENT … ’CAUSE IT SUCKS!
It was not long before Humphrey again huddled with
Wilkins, having heard that Gore’s task force was eyeing the Agency of Invasive Species as a fairly easy cut.
The timing could not have been worse, as Humphrey had lamented that the agency was operating under increasingly cramped quarters in the Department of Agriculture building, and was readying a proposal for a new, separate building. Now he would have to justify existing funding, never mind persuading others to spend money on a new state-of-the-art facility. Wilkins was less enthused about moving; the USDA building was a short walk from the Tidal Basin and he liked eating his lunch outside.
The pair sat on a bench, eating sandwiches on a spring day, as Humphrey contemplated his strategy for a new round of meetings with Gore and his advisers.
Wilkins greeted their latest challenge incredulously. “You can’t tell me we survived twelve years of right-wingers, only to have the vice president try to ax us. How can this be happening again?” he asked. “I thought this was why we elected Democrats!”
“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” Humphrey chuckled. “Gore was never a fan of ours in the Senate. Apparently his fellow tobacco farmers complained that we were slow to respond to their requests and insufficiently focused on the needs of Tennessee’s agricultural community.”
“Yeah, but cutting our budget? Would Hargis and the Appropriations Committee even allow that?”
“Jack, the president won the election with the lowest percentage of the popular vote in eighty years. To enact any significant portion of his agenda, he needs to dissuade the public of the notion that he is a big-spending liberal. He and Gore must find some areas to cut, and he will tout, with great fanfare, his list of cuts, even though they will be small.”
“Why so small?”
“Because the president
a big-spending liberal. He will attempt to obscure a tax hike of thirty-five billion dollars
by cutting existing funding by about two billion.
Remember, much of the public is vague on the distinction between numbers ending in ‘illion’; anything past seven figures is a synonym for ‘a lot.’ Diligence requires me to assume that our budget will represent a convenient and tempting target to reach their desired level of cuts.”
Wilkins continued to moan. Humphrey ignored him and continued his lesson.
“Right now, Gore and his band are looking for scapegoats and sacrificial lambs, and this is a particularly unhealthy development for us. An unwatched budget tends to thrive, healthily—adjustments to the baseline and such. But the one thing that can get an agency’s budget sliced to the bone is turning it into an UMA.”
“An Unfortunate Memorable Anecdote. The six-hundred-dollar toilet seat. The five-hundred-dollar hammer. The joke that ends up in the monologue of Johnny Carson or that new fellow with the chin. If something big and embarrassing enough comes to light, and it creates days and weeks of headlines, it can become a symbol and Congress will make an example of it. Sure, you can always get the money back years later—it’s not like they cut off Pentagon funding because of expensive toilet seats—but a federal agency’s budget can be cut or frozen for years because of one sufficiently denounced and mocked mistake.
You become so radioactive that no one on the Appropriations Committee can run the risk of funding you.”
“Well, we’ll just have to not have any waste, then,” Wilkins chirped.
Humphrey shot him a disappointed look. “Jack Wilkins, any large organization has waste. There are simply too many variables, too many employees, too many decisions made in any organization to not have it. In fact, if you add various checks and balances and safeguards and precautions to avoid wasteful decisions, you end up with a slow and complicated system that spreads accountability so thin that it ultimately just adds to the waste. I’ve studied this for years, and there are only two solutions, neither of which fits our agency or many others.”