In 1981, the federal government devoted $20.2 million to an agency focused on fighting … weeds. By 2012, the budget had grown to $493.58 million, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agency of Invasive Species was planning a move to its own building on the National Mall.
What? You’ve never heard of the agency or its building? Well, there is a good reason for that. The agency, the building, and the budget figures are not real. They are the creation of National Review contributing editor Jim Geraghty, who mixes disturbing facts about an overgrown government with the fictional elements of his new novel, The Weed Agency: A Comic Tale of Federal Bureaucracy Without Limits. (Copies will be available for purchase Monday when Geraghty speaks to the John Locke Foundation’s Shaftesbury Society.)
The story is phony, but one wishes it were less plausible. Geraghty warns us in an author’s note that the government actually does have a “Federal Interagency Committee for the Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds, the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, and the Federal Interagency Committee on Invasive Terrestrial Animals and Pathogens.” Plus the U.S. Department of Agriculture is one of more than a dozen departments and agencies — including NASA — involved with the federal “National Invasive Species Council.”
As Geraghty developed his story of a low-profile government agency led by career bureaucrats interested mostly in preserving their jobs and budgets, no matter who’s in charge of Congress or the White House, this reader cringed every time he encountered a footnote. Each one signaled a case in which an outlandish detail that should have been fictional turned out to be true.
And the characters of Adam Humphrey and Jack Wilkins, USDA AID’s long-serving administrative director and assistant, serve as the mouthpieces for Geraghty’s observations about the worst elements of an unaccountable bureaucracy. Without giving away too much of the plot, the following passage details their reaction to a crisis that occurs in 2006, when the agency’s budget is $257.8 million.
Wilkins closed the door behind him and spoke in a hushed, terrified tone.
“Humphrey … we screwed up.”
“Think of the Hindenburg … crashing into the Titanic … as it sails to Pompeii … with Ford Pintos sent to rescue the wounded.”
“Calm down and tell me everything you’ve learned.”
“I didn’t write anything down, as you instructed — okay, I wrote it on my hands.”
“Good. The last thing we need are any … unflattering memos or other paperwork to be requested by Congress or FOIAed.”
“Everything that has ever bothered me about this place joined forces just as this cheatgrass wave was coming up from Mexico. The complacency, the miscommunication or lack of communication, the lack of urgency, the pervasive belief that somebody else was out there taking care of the problem, the human cholesterol of incompetent staff that were too much trouble to fire, everyone waiting for approval from everyone else before taking actions, the endless meetings, the postponed meetings, the rescheduled meetings, the missed meetings, the memos that went unread, the e-mails that were ‘skimmed’ — I swear to God, the next time I need to tell people something, I’m posting it above the urinals and on the bathroom stall doors.”
“So you’re saying our staff missed red flags,” Humphrey said uneasily.
“It was a friggin’ Turkish army parade, Adam!” Wilkins was furious. “Every farmer in California was finding these things and reporting them! They didn’t get noticed because there was a backlog of old reports piling up! When people did start passing the reports up the chain, everybody acted like it was just another day at the office, instead of the … the … the Pearl Harbor of weeds!”
Humphrey stood for a moment, trying to grasp the enormity of the foul-up now detailed in marker ink up and down his assistant’s forearms.
“Wash your hands,” Humphrey said.
You’ll have to read the book to learn how the crisis came about and how Humphrey and Wilkins go about trying to save their skins.