Book Review: The Weed Agency

Jim Geraghty, Contributing Editor and author of The Morning Jolt at National Review (@jimgeraghty on Twitter) and co-host of The Jim and Mickey Show podcast, has written a thoroughly enjoyable piece of fiction grounded in the depressing reality of the way the federal government works. And by “works” I don’t mean “works for you”, I mean rather “works for its own perpetuation”. The book is The Weed Agency: A Comic Tale of Federal Bureaucracy without Limits (Full disclosure: Jim occasionally retweets me).

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The book takes the reader inside the fictional Agency of Invasive Species (AIS), a Carter-era addition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, focusing on the decades-long battle its career bureaucrats face in maintaining the agency’s relevance (and funding) in what appears to be a changing Washington. It follows both career bureaucrats at the top of the agency and (later on) starry-eyed newcomers looking at a position at the agency as a stepping stone to more grandiose careers in other Federal agencies. It also features a career antagonist of the agency (in this book, the terms ‘antagonist’ and ‘protagonist’ can only be used in a relative sense) whose efforts are aimed at exposing the agency’s uselessness and bringing it to an end.

As one who is familiar with the ways that small branches of larger federal agencies work, the book is a frighteningly spot-on description of their machinations: they look for opportunities to grow; in the absence of growth, they run silent so as to avoid making enemies; they tie themselves to benefactors in the House or Senate, preferably with seniority and majority status; and they innovate only if required.

For regular readers of Geraghty and of conservative Twitter, there are multiple easter eggs hidden throughout the book. (I won’t give them away here, go buy a copy!) There are also numerous appearances by people you’re familiar with from C-SPAN, or cable or network news, their dialogue written so much to the way you would expect to hear as to be frightening. A certain HHS Secretary’s ability to string words and sentences together without pause for breath made me laugh out loud in-flight. A House Speaker’s ability to get caught up in discussions of technology and philosophy, to his own detriment, just makes you shake your head. These elements of dialogue benefit from Geraghty’s interactions with the subjects in his capacities at NR.

Most importantly, as Geraghty notes through regular references, many of the words and actions of politicians and career agency staffers are driven by actual references and occasional quotes from other…well, they’re not scandals, in the traditional sense…but they’re examples of the hand-in-glove relationships between appropriators and agencies that exist in real life. The story in The Weed Agency is fictional, but the barest sheen exists between the fiction and fact so as to both make the tale completely believable and exceptionally depressing at the same time.

As mentioned earlier, the story captures an apparently changing Washington: it begins in the heady, early days of the Reagan administration, where the thought of slashing whole agencies seems an achievable reality. The story progresses through the decades, encountering the Clinton administration, a Republican Congress, the tech bubble, 9/11, and more. Each of these seemingly monumental changes to the political winds, however, is met with the tidal rush of government as-is. Many of the lessons imparted to newly minted assistant administrator for the AIS, Jack Wilkins, by his boss, Adam Humphrey, are perfect descriptions of the survival pattern of any Federal agency. Or of the cockroach, for that matter. It makes reality clear: Change in government is a Sisyphean effort at best. For every budget slashing Nick Bader, there’s a Vernon Hargis, porkmaster supreme, who looks at the growth of the Federal government as an employment and construction opportunity for the constituents of his rural Kentucky District.

The political winds of 1992 bring three new characters to the story, recent college graduates who, inspired by the Clinton election, find their own niches in the agency. Lisa Bloom, Jamie Caro, and Ava Summers each bring their own energy to the Agency, but each views this job as the first rung in a career to something bigger. Through the years, their close-knit friendships are strained, and Ava, in particular, finds her way out of government. Of all the characters, hers raises sympathy in that she is the nearest to reaching “outside the matrix”, so to speak. But her time out of government in the late 90s tech sector finds her in equally frustrating ground, where the promise of a tech startup rarely lives up to the ability to deliver. If anything, it’s her time in government that prepares her BS meter for the inevitable tech sector death march that follows.

Now, I realize that what I’ve written about The Weed Agency makes the book seem like a depressing read. It’s anything but. The reality it captures is depressing, but it is an engaging and thought-provoking read.  It is, moreover, eye opening for the novice as to how government really works, beyond the things we learned watching Schoolhouse Rock growing up. For the non-novice, like myself, it is filled with engaging insight. The one element that seems missing – and it’s probably good that it is, otherwise the book would approach Ulysses in readability – is the extent of intra-agency politics. An entity like the AIS within USDA would, in my experience, have been shuffled through many reorganizations within the USDA within the lifespan covered in the book. Each of those would have also resulted in turf and budget battles within the agency’s requests for appropriations. The absence of this is noticed only by true wonks; to the general reader, the dysfunction present, the Houdini-like ability of an agency’s representatives to walk into multiple meetings where funding is to be slashed, only to exit with new missions and funding increases, is staggering. And would be hilarious if it weren’t true.

Not at all because he retweets me: Jim Geraghty’s The Weed Agency is highly recommended, informative, and an entertaining examination of the government we have, and the way it fights to maintain itself.

CORRECTION: HHS Secretary, not HUD Secretary. Corrected after seeing in today’s Morning Jolt (to quote @redsoutrage, “squee!!)

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