Soaring levels of government waste, fraud, and abuse leave many of us wondering whether we live in an alternate reality. We shake our heads in despair and wonder when the absurdity will stop. Jim Geraghty goes one step further and, in his just-released “mock history” — The Weed Agency: A Comic Tale of Federal Bureaucracy Without Limits — embraces the madness for madcap effect. He sat down to discuss the book — is it fact or fiction? — with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Admit it: You’re hoping the state of Colorado jumps to conclusions and makes your book a bestseller based on the title.
Jim Geraghty: If confused stoners drive The Weed Agency to the bestseller list, I won’t complain. I should probably start claiming that the book was printed on rolling paper. They’re probably the demographic most likely to forget to return it and ask for a refund.
Lopez: You write, “Everyone who comes to Washington intending to cut the government comes with some other goal as well — defense, abortion, schools, whatever. And everyone who likes the government the way it is has gotten very, very skilled at figuring out how to get us to focus on the other stuff.” Is it really all that bad?
Geraghty: I’m not sure if it’s bad so much as it’s reality. Sometimes that other stuff is really important — Ronald Reagan came to Washington aiming to win the Cold War as well as reduce the cost and size of government; 9/11 obviously completely overwrote the original agenda of George W. Bush’s presidency. As presidencies and congressional careers progress, some priorities inevitably squeeze out other priorities. Cutting spending has one of the worst effort-to-reward ratios in governing. You don’t get to name federal facilities after yourself, you don’t get ribbon-cutting ceremonies and boasts of jobs created. You don’t get to brag in campaign ads that you created a program to solve some problem. You don’t create a constituency that wants to see that spending continue and get you reelected in order to ensure that that spending continues. You put yourself at risk of attack ads declaring you cut something that’s popular and beloved. So the natural incentive for lawmakers, even conservative ones, is to focus on other issues and topics where there is better return on the investment of time and effort.
Lopez: Did you actually have to read the Federal Register as background to writing the novel? Couldn’t a root canal be less painful and more productive?
Geraghty: Oh, Kathryn. You forget that at my previous job at the wire service States News Service, we had to read the Federal Register every day to look for story ideas.
But beyond that, I spoke to folks at Citizens Against Government Waste, read a lot of history of past presidencies, read a lot of online griping by current federal workers and specialty publications that cover the federal workforce — Government Executive, and so on. There’s never a shortage of silly, outrageous, or unbelievable things that the government is doing; the question was turning it into an interesting narrative story as opposed to a news story.
Lopez: Explain your approach: What is real, what is your imagination running ideologically wild?
Geraghty: I put in footnotes when my story involved an example of government waste that was inspired by a real-life example. The USDA Agency of Invasive Species ended up being the repository of all of the worst offenders — the General Services Administration’s lavish conferences at luxury hotels, fancy sculptures, building alliances on Capitol Hill, making sure their branch offices are in locations that help members of the Appropriations Committee.
Throughout the book there’s fictional memos, hearing transcripts, magazine and newspaper articles. If my pork-meister congressman had really existed, here’s what Bob Novak would have written about him.