Monday, November 24, 2014

'Sheriff Biden' Versus The Weed Agency

    In a 2011 blog post titled There's a New Sheriff in Town, the White House announced that Vice President Joe Biden was spearheading a new "effort to root out wasteful spending at every agency and department in the Federal Government" called the Campaign to Cut Waste. As if to emphasize the urgency of the situation, another post went up on the White House blog just fifty-six minutes later entitled TooManyWebsites.gov (a tongue-in-cheek title). Then-Director of Digital Strategy Macon Phillips singled out several websites on Sheriff Biden's most wanted list:
As the President points out in this video, our government doesn't need a website dedicated to foresters who play the fiddle. We also don’t need multiple sites dealing with invasive plants (here and here).  And I‘m pretty sure the website dedicated to the Centennial of Flight can come down... particularly since the Centennial was in 2003.
     Here's where reality runs smack into fiction, or vice versa. In 2014, National Review's Jim Geraghty released his novel The Weed Agency. His book chronicles the saga of the fictional USDA Agency of Invasive Species, a zombie-like government entity that refuses to quit. In a parallel with Geraghty's book that almost seems like a promotional stunt, the two real-life "invasive plant" websites showcased by the White House more than three years ago as examples of redundancy that we "don't need"... both still exist today (here and here, and pictured below):

    As you might imagine, Geraghty wasn't exactly caught flat-footed by this revelation.  When asked for comment, he responded:
Somehow I am less than stunned to see that bold promises about cutting waste have not been kept. Barack Obama and Joe Biden, like Bill Clinton and Al Gore before them, and Jimmy Carter before them, knew that a key part of the progressive agenda requires restoring people's faith in government, including its efficiency and effectiveness. Thus, they contend - and fool themselves into thinking -- they have some magic formula for getting large bureaucracies with many layers of middle management, widely dispersed accountability, and a culture of complacency - and turning them into cost-efficient well-oiled machines. The forces of the status quo nods, smiles and carries on as if nothing changed. The difference between the Right and the Left is that this drives us bonkers, while the Left eventually shrugs its shoulders and accepts it as part of the price of doing business, so to speak.
     The invasive plant websites were not the only ones to evade, at least initially, Biden's Campaign to Cut Waste. As Macon Phillips points out in his blog post, President Obama himself recorded a video in which he derided the notion that the federal government needed "a website dedicated to foresters who play the fiddle." Here's a screen capture of the website from the president's video:

    However, more than three years after President Obama's chiding video was recorded, the government was still paying for the "fiddlin' foresters" site. (The address to which the White House linked, "fiddllinforresters.gov", never actually existed; both "fiddllin" and "forresters" were spelled incorrectly in the url Phillips used.) As recently as May 2014, www.fiddlinforesters.us was still in place as this archived page shows:

    While visitors to the main address of the site were greeted with a message that the "site has been temporarily shut down," the whole site was actually still intact. A check on the domain registration for the site reveals an official Forest Service email address and phone number under contact information. The individual listed is none other than one of the original Fiddlin' Foresters, Jane Leche, who works as a Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service. So while the website was finally shut down, the domain name remains registered even today.
     The final example in the TooManyWebsites.gov blog post was the Centennial of Flight website. This government-operated website celebrating the Wright Brothers' first flight did not go down without a fight, either. More than a year after Macon Phillips said he was "pretty sure the website... can come down," a cached version shows it was still hanging on in October 2012, though its days were numbered.
    However, even in this case, that's not the end of the story. The site was rescued by a non-profit organization and centennialofflight.gov was rechristened centennialofflight.net where the original content of the site is preserved and even updated. But, in fairness, at least it's no longer on the government's dime.
    Finally, Vice President Biden singled out one more website in the New Sheriff in Town blog post, noting that "your tax dollars pay for a website dedicated to the Desert Tortoise." That website indeed was shut down, though more than a year later the site was still active as a redirect... to the new tortoise site at majovedata.gov... which was also subsequently shut down. However, in true government fashion, the desert tortoise is by no means ignored. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency all have the desert tortoise well covered:

    Jim Geraghty has pointed out that his novel The Weed Agency debuted back in June at number eight on the Washington Post's Bestsellers list, it was categorized, ironically enough, under "Nonfiction/General". The government's real-world inability to even eliminate redundant websites certainly lends credence to the suggestion that the preternatural resilience of the Agency of Invasive Species portrayed in Geraghty's book is all too realistic.
    When launching the Campaign to Cut Waste in 2011, Vice President Joe Biden wrote, "So, folks, we’re changing the way your government does business (and spends your hard-earned tax dollars), and I think you’re going to like the results." As it turns out, the "folks" might not agree.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

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