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.
Lopez: Who is this Nicholas Bader fella, and what’s the civics lesson he provides?
Geraghty: Nicholas Bader started out as a crusader in the style of Pat Toomey, Tom Coburn, Jeff Flake, and all of the other passionately anti-pork guys in Congress. He was going to be one of our heroes, or at least the nemesis to my ultimate bureaucrat character, Agency Administrative Director Adam Humphrey. I showed an early draft to one of my more apolitical friends, and she asked, “Why is this guy such a nut job?” That was a useful indicator of how my sense of “normal” is. And then I kind of embraced the idea of Bader being a bit obsessed with this — he’s the Captain Ahab, the Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard, the Wile E. Coyote who has a clear goal of eliminating funding for the agency and is relentless in pursuit of it.
One of the later chapters takes place during the era of the Tom DeLay–Jack Abramoff scandal, and Bader’s a useful contrast to most of the other congressional Republicans of those years, who had largely given up on the fight to shrink government. One of the really liberating aspects of the book was tearing into past Republicans who became way too comfortable with steadily expanding budgets and started focusing on just unbelievably inane crap like which staffer was getting hired for what lobbying gig on K Street.
Lopez: How is the “fight of the Left vs. the Right” the “undercard fight”?
Geraghty: The bureaucracy in Washington is permanent; the folks who work within the Cabinet departments and agencies are going to be spending their careers there — two to four decades, in a lot of cases. Presidents, Cabinet secretaries, agency directors — they’re staying eight years at most, and usually significantly less. You can wait out a lot of reforms and proposals just by dragging your feet. Republicans want to shrink government and for it to do less; Democrats want to grow government, but they also want it to do more — provide everyone with health care, provide everyone with retirement security, provide everyone with education, and so on. The permanent bureaucracy doesn’t like the Republicans for obvious reasons, but they’re not all that eager to take on all those responsibilities that the Democrats envision — or at least they’re not going to be any more efficient, reliable, or responsive in those new duties than they were in the old duties.
So in some ways, the fights in Washington in the past few decades have represented the permanent bureaucracy vs. everyone else. The VA scandal is probably the most vivid, and appalling, recent example of this.
Lopez: Still, isn’t this very much the typical conservative “the government is too big” case? Is there a language shift at the very least to put it in language that might let liberals get onboard more comfortably?
Geraghty: One aspect that I wanted to emphasize in the book is that there are a lot of good people who go to work for the federal government. The people who enter those jobs usually have some idealistic desire to help others and make the country a better place. They’re not doing it to get rich, although the pay is pretty good, the benefits are better, and the job security is pretty spectacular compared with the private sector. But they enter and usually find that their workplaces are nothing like what they expected — resistant to change and new ideas, extremely comfortable with the status quo, valuing hierarchy and time served over all else. There’s a culture of complacency, and they react to it in one of three ways. The first option is to leave — the third year is usually when young federal workers decide they’ve had it and can’t stand it anymore. The second option is to stay but grumble about it. There are a lot of online discussion boards where you can find frustrated federal workers fuming about their paperwork, complicated purchasing process, inefficiencies, outdated technology, endless meetings, waiting for approval from superiors, and so on. The third option is to adapt and get with the program — they figure out what it takes to rise within such a dysfunctional organization and get assimilated into the collective, you could say.
Lopez: One of your characters says: “You notice no one ever says, ‘Close enough for private-sector work.’” How is that not just hating on government workers?
Geraghty: That’s my bureaucratic mastermind Humphrey explaining why he’s fine with the status quo; he doesn’t think his staffers could do much better than they already are: “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Some of the harshest critics of government workers are other government workers. They see the incompetence and irresponsibility of their coworkers and grind their teeth. Part of this represents how difficult it is to fire someone in the federal government. But another big reason that the “culture of complacency” can thrive is because the federal government has no competition. Very few of the U.S. government’s “customers” — i.e., all of us — are willing to move elsewhere when we feel we’re not getting our money’s worth. Businesses compete with other businesses, and if you think your state government is too awful to bear anymore, you can move somewhere else. But most Americans won’t move to another country.
Lopez: Is there a between-the-lines analysis of the Reagan administration in there that might surprise people?
Geraghty: Sure — I’m a Reagan fan as much as the next guy; when you grow up with Ronald Reagan as your president, you expect that all presidents will be that good, and you end up sorely disappointed. Reagan’s presidency was a great success in many areas, but it did not do a particularly good job of controlling spending. And while without doubt he brilliantly articulated the arguments in favor of limited government, it’s not clear that Reagan’s arguments stuck with the public for very long or really shaped their thinking on government. His successor famously raised taxes, and within four years one chunk of the public was voting for Bill Clinton and another was voting for Ross Perot.
Lopez: What are your words to Newt Gingrich in case he reads the book?
Geraghty: I don’t think the portrayal of Newt is that negative. He’s always had two sides to him, the indisputably conservative, let’s-cut-government side and then the optimistic, science-and-technology-obsessed futurist side. If you look back to what Newt was saying then — and now — he believes that government can work better if it embraces technology and change and prioritizes being more flexible and responsive to the public’s needs. I thought it would be pretty natural that government bureaucrats on the chopping block would appeal to that aspect of Newt’s worldview.
I thought it was kind of fitting and flattering that my tech-geek protagonist Ava and Newt hit it off so well.
Lopez: And Al Gore?
Geraghty: That is perhaps the most Naked Gun or Mad magazine–style moment in the book, where I have something impossibly ridiculous going on, and everyone in the scene behaves as if it’s perfectly normal.
But aside from portraying Gore’s odd behavior, mannerisms, and speech patterns, that scene and a lot of the early ones are showcasing my “master bureaucrat” character, Adam Humphrey, and his skills as an accountability escape artist. The White House, congressmen, the inspector general — people keep coming up with new efforts to reduce this agency’s budget or eliminate it entirely, and he keeps finding new ways to outmaneuver them. Humphrey’s our villain, but I think and hope he’s an affable, strangely likeable one. He’s built his little kingdom, and he protects himself and his people by out-thinking everyone who comes along to threaten it. He would really thrive in the world of Game of Thrones.
Lopez: You’ve been writing about politics now for some two decades. (Don’t worry, I’m old, too. I remember visiting you in the States News Service office!) What’s always the same? What gets old quick each time you see it? What surprises you?
Geraghty: I’m sick of “blue-ribbon bipartisan commissions” and spend a chapter or two mocking that Bush-era trend. That’s just elected lawmakers outsourcing their jobs to their elderly predecessors.
I guess I’m surprised that more places that are just flat-out failing — the industrial, increasingly empty cities of the upper Midwest and Northeast — aren’t willing to try new, more rightward approaches. It took the absolute low point of post-Katrina life to get Louisianans to take a chance on that fast-talking, skinny Indian guy, Bobby Jindal, and four years later, the state’s enjoying a renaissance. I’m surprised more states aren’t trying to emulate the policies that have, at least in part, fueled the huge job growth in Texas.
Lopez: Cheap prediction question we’ll be sure to bring up at a later date: What’s the general-election lineup look like in 2016?
Geraghty: Oh, I’ll say that GOP first-debate lineup will include Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz. I don’t think Christie will run. I’ll pick Scott Walker as the nominee, as he’ll be everybody’s second choice.
The Democrats could go one of two ways. Either Hillary runs, and she has only one pro forma opponent, like Bill Bradley against Gore in 2000. The other scenario is that she stumbles a bit in the coming years — metaphorically, not concussion-inducing literally — and other Democrats smell vulnerability and a chance to be the second — Brian Schweitzer, Elizabeth Warren, maybe a Deval Patrick. But I think a more ruthless Hillary will still steamroll her way to the nomination.
As for who wins, it’s way too early to tell. It will really depend upon the state of the country in 2016.
Lopez: What could either one of them do about the Weed Agency? Could weeding out waste become a bipartisan, national platform? A matter of some moral urgency and common sense, a matter of good stewardship?
Geraghty: I’d love to see that, and I think it’s getting there. Democrats have now seen a bunch of their biggest dream projects and priorities fall apart because of an unresponsive bureaucracy — the HHS and a bunch of states can’t build a functioning website, the VA lies about how many patients it’s treating, the State Department doesn’t move on requests for additional security in Benghazi.
To adopt a bit of Kevin Williamson’s The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, some of these changes will become priorities forced upon lawmakers as the fiscal picture grows more dire. The entitlement mess, interest on the debt, unfunded pension liabilities — Democrats will have to start looking at the federal workforce more critically in order to keep funding the stuff they really like.
Lopez: Did you enjoy novel writing? Is there more of it in your future? Is there really an animated series to come?
Geraghty: I really enjoyed it, and I hope this book is successful enough to show there would be a market for another.
Probably the best fictional work on the dysfunction of government was the BBC’s Yes Minister television series; my ultimate-bureaucrat character is named Humphrey after one of the protagonists in that series. I think it would be easy to envision a television series or movie of The Weed Agency; it’s where The Office meets The West Wing. My agent will happily sell the rights.
Lopez: How cynical are you about politics? Can people go to Washington and change the world?
Geraghty: Absolutely, they can. It’s just that you rarely change the world the way you think you will when you’re 21.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.