U.S. National Debt: $950 billion
Budget, USDA Agency of Invasive Species: $20.2 million
Jack Wilkins knew he was about to witness history: In the long history of budgetary fights, Adam Humphrey vs. Nicholas Bader was going to be the clash of the titans: Otto von Bismarck vs. Genghis Khan.
At stake was nothing less than the existence of the federal agency that employed Wilkins and Humphrey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agency of Invasive Species. President Jimmy Carter established the agency, dedicated to protecting American agriculture and gardens from the menace of invasive weeds, just four years earlier, and it stood out as a most likely target for cuts.
Humphrey’s official title at the agency was abbreviated as “USDA DFS BARM A-IS AD,”1 but as the administrative director, the highest-ranking non-appointed position, agency employees considered him the only man within the agency who actually knew what was going on.
And yet, as the two men sat in Humphrey’s office in the U.S. Department of Agriculture building in Washington, Wilkins found his boss oddly quiet and almost too confident.
“We have a week to save our jobs,” Wilkins emphasized. He wasn’t surprised that his boss didn’t share his panic--Humphrey was legendarily unflappable--but unnerved that his boss seemed so engrossed by the articles about the incoming Reagan administration’s budget hawks that he seemed oblivious to the notion that their own jobs were among those they would try to cut.
“I thought that Gergen, Stockman, and the other barbarians coming in with the president would give us more time, but they just called and asked us to meet with Nick Bader Monday morning.” Wilkins exhaled. “Of all the folks we could deal with, Bader’s the worst. ‘Nick the Knife.’ ‘Big, Bad Bader.’ ”
Like most of Washington, Wilkins thought that “President Ronald Reagan” was a fanciful, silly notion that the electorate would never actually indulge as an experiment. But the 1980 election hadn’t even been that close, and now the early days of the administration revealed an even more unthinkable development: Reagan and his team hadn’t merely been talking about cutting the government; they were putting together a budget that would actually do it. The twenty-six-year-old Wilkins had jumped to the high-ranking assistant administrator position at the federal agency after reaching early burnout in the Carter White House, and now what he had been assured was a remarkably safe civil service job felt precarious.
Humphrey was only a decade older than Wilkins but the difference felt generational. Unlike Wilkins’s deepening anxiety, Humphrey shrugged off the incoming administration’s pledge to cut wherever possible; he had recently tried to reassure his younger assistant that those who pledge to uproot bureaucracy are among those most likely to succumb to it. He pointed out that the president arrived in Washington with forty-eight separate task forces assigned to assist in the effort to reorganize the government, with more than 450 eager minds, mouths, and egos involved. The overall government-cutting bible of the merry band, Mandate for Leadership, published by the Heritage Foundation, was a 1,093-page book that represented the work of twenty task forces with three hundred participants, some of whom overlapped with Reagan’s task forces.2 The president’s inner circle selected the dangerous right-winger David Gergen to set up the president’s Initial Actions Project with a forty-ninepage report laying out the plan to not get distracted in his first year in office.
Despite Humphrey’s quiet, inexplicable confidence, the Reagan team moved quickly and his little kingdom--a federal agency assigned the silly-sounding duty of ensuring the nation’s safety from invasive weeds--stood out, glaringly, high on the list of potential cuts.
The decisive meeting with the administration loomed a week away, with every expectation that the session would end with the administration announcing its intent to eliminate the Agency of Invasive Species entirely.
Wilkins had hoped the meetings would be with someone reasonable, someone like David Stockman, the congressman who was leaving the Hill to become Reagan’s new head of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Instead . . .
No name struck more fear into the hearts of government employees than the newly named Special Assistant to the President for Budgetary Discipline Nicholas Bader. Among federal employees, Bader was deemed slightly more threatening and evil than Charles Manson. Bader was jealous of Stockman’s reputation as the administration’s most fearsome axman, and shortly after a Newsweek cover piece on Stockman, Bader cooperated with a Time profile on himself that called him, “Reagan’s bloody right hand, always grasping a meat cleaver and craving the chance to cut deeper and faster.” The accompanying caricature portrayed him as Jack the Ripper.
In a heavy-handed symbolism rarely found outside Herblock cartoons, slain women labeled with various government agencies’ three-letter acronyms were depicted lying at Bader’s feet as his head was thrown back, roaring with laughter. The comparison didn’t bother Bader in the slightest; he joked that the cartoonist intended the comparison of government agencies to prostitutes.
A Time’s reporter asked Bader what, if any, government spending was legitimate and necessary. The pugnacious Reaganite instantly and easily replied that at this moment in American history, all government resources should be refocused upon the threat of the Soviet Union, now on the march in Afghanistan and who knows where next.
One week later, Wilkins felt even less assured about the upcoming budget battle, and Humphrey’s mysterious confidence continued unabated. They met at the agency offices in the Department of Agriculture building at 14th Street and Independence Avenue, then grabbed a cab for the short ride to Bader’s lair in the Old Executive Office Building. Humphrey never walked in winter.
On the cab’s radio, Pat Benatar dared her suitors to demonstrate their marksmanship.
“So the plan is, what, Adam, hypnotize him?” asked Wilkins, fidgeting with the handle on his briefcase.
“Relax, Jack,” Humphrey instructed. “Bader feeds off of anxiety, and if you show weakness, suggest any concession, he will pounce. He will begin with bluster and an attempt to demonstrate dominance to set the tone of the meeting, like a great ape beating his chest. Ignore it all and appear unimpressed. Let me do the talking. And concur with anything I say.”
Wilkins nodded, and nervously cracked his knuckles.
Bader himself drove in from the Virginia suburbs. Despite his reputation as part of the Reaganite preppie vanguard, he had a soft spot for pop music. British rockers singing about one after another biting the dust put him in the appropriately ruthless mood for the workday.
He drummed the steering wheel and wiggled his tush to the beat in the driver’s seat, amusing the occasional commuter in the next lane. Next to the perpetually sunny president, Bader enjoyed his job more than anyone else in Washington.
The grandson of German immigrants, Bader grew up in Queens, New York, in a thoroughly middle-class lifestyle, the son of an accountant father and aspiring entrepreneurial mother.
Young Nick had learned to give his father, Reynard P. Bader, CPA, a wide berth from about mid-January to mid-April. Life returned to its relaxed and warm tone after the last of those who had filed extensions had submitted their paperwork. Mastering the ever-more-complicated tax code, coupled with the unpleasant news of telling other people how much they owed, tended to make Reynard short-tempered and prone to lengthy diatribes about individual and corporate minimum taxes, the alternative minimum tax, and the antifamily implications of the marriage penalty instituted by the Tax Reform Act of 1969.
Nick’s mother, Helena, spent much of his childhood running a struggling catering business; if the business cycle wasn’t squeezing her, some city health inspector or rule triggered some other headache. The Bader family dinner table conversations were full of lamentations and fury over the tax code and federal, state, and city regulations of every kind, and they cultivated a righteous indignation in the son.
Perfect math SAT scores had gotten him into Princeton University with a brief Naval ROTC stint. He worked on the Hill until jumping on Reagan’s bandwagon in 1976 and again in 1980. Now, he was not even thirty and working in the White House--or so he liked to say, even though technically he worked in the Old Executive Office Building.
Throughout the first weeks of the new administration, Bader prepared what he called Reagan’s “naughty list” of government programs and agencies to be zeroed out in the upcoming year’s budget proposal. A strange sense of honor and diligence drove him to look his foes in the eye as he broke the news. That sense of honor didn’t go so far as to actually sympathize with the individuals whose jobs he aimed to eliminate; he considered most of the people before him to be parasites sucking on the national treasury. In a world where the Soviets were on the march in Afghanistan, the federal government was spending many times an average American’s annual income on inane, pointless expenditures, such as $525,000 to convert 7 percent of the U.S. Coast Guard’s personnel files to microfiche.3
Bader saw himself as righting the scales and unleashing a bit of holy wrath upon those who arrogantly assumed the American taxpayer would always pay whatever Washington demanded. He daydreamed of firing them all, but the civil service system made it nearly impossible to fire anyone, and removing the threat of termination had a predictable impact on many government workers’ sense of accountability and work ethic.
Joining the White House team made Bader feel slightly hypocritical, as he would have to fill out all the forms and become one of those government employees--albeit, he assured himself, temporarily. The public sector--roughly eighty-one million Americans, once you counted everyone receiving one form of public assistance or another--had to be paid for by the seventy million Americans working in the private sector.4 Sure, government employees would quickly insist that they paid taxes too--but all of the money that constituted their salaries originally came from tax dollars taken from the private sector.
A government cannot raise money by taxing its own spending. All of the money has to come from somewhere else, and that somewhere else was either the private sector or borrowing. In this dilemma, Bader breathed slightly easier, knowing that as president, Reagan was going to draw a hard line on deficit spending.
When he contemplated the injustice of it all, and the callousness with which the federal bureaucracy greeted every April 16, Bader couldn’t help but secretly feel a tinge of satisfaction at the tears and fury that greeted each meeting’s bad news. One distraught EPA administrator had actually opened a window and stepped out onto the ledge, threatening to jump, after one meeting discussing cuts to environmental enforcement; Bader dealt with the potential brouhaha by circulating an internal memo outlining new security measures for windows and ledges.5
Today’s meeting appeared particularly sweet to Bader: Somehow President Carter had been conned into creating a separate federal agency whose sole duty was monitoring and combating weeds. On paper, wiping this agency off the bureaucratic flowchart would be among his easiest and most satisfying. But breaking the news to Adam Humphrey would be a particularly delicious moment, as the small subculture of budget hawks on Capitol Hill had considered Humphrey to be a Svengali of appropriations fights. Bader knew a few bits of his background: Harvard undergrad, then Georgetown Law. He had been the legislative counsel to both House and Senate committees. His reputation was impressive but strangely vague--besides his negotiation skills, few knew much about him.
Bader smiled as he parked the car. Adam Humphrey and the Agency of Invasive Species would, too, bite the dust.
Bader awaited them in a conference room within the Old Executive Office Building. On his second day on the job, he had noticed that each leg of the chairs had an adjustable screw-peg at the bottom for balance, and had adjusted the chairs so that the ones on the visitors’ side of the room were a quarter-inch shorter than the chairs on his side. Bader sat behind a conference table, flanked by two silent, stone-faced, square-jawed aides. He liked to think of them as the office assistant version of the Secret Service.
“Good morning, Mr. Bader!” Humphrey practically burst with good cheer upon entering the room. “Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to give us the opportunity to further illuminate the services this agency provides to the American people.”
Bader didn’t rise to greet him, but merely nodded.
“You can dispense with the pleasantries, Humphrey.” He shot a sphincter-tightening smile at Wilkins and declared, “Sucking up to me isn’t going to make me like your pathetic joke of an agency.”
Humphrey’s smile didn’t budge. He gave a quick glance at Wilkins, as if to say, “See, right on schedule.” He subtly made a fist and softly thumped his chest. Wilkins bit his tongue to avoid laughing as they sat down.
“Mr. Bader, you have no idea how difficult it has been to work here in Washington, within the federal workforce, and yearn for that new sheriff to establish that new order. Indeed, I was greatly reassured to see our new era of fiscal rectitude ushered in with the most expensive inauguration festivities in American history.”
“Chalk that up to our predecessor’s bang-up job on containing inflation,” Bader snapped. “There’s a new sheriff in town, and the attitude toward those who waste taxpayers’ money is to hang ’em high.”
Neither of Bader’s aides had said a word after their terse introductions, but at this moment, for a split second, the one on the right pantomimed choking on a noose and smiled.
“We’ve got a lot of suspects to round up. Did you know this government spent more than a billion dollars on new furniture in the past ten years? At the same time, we’ve got seventy-eight--I counted--federally owned warehouses in the Washington area, storing piles upon piles of unused furniture, some wrapped in the original plastic.”6
This was a monologue of righteous rage that Bader had rehearsed and performed in all of these meetings, and he enjoyed each one of them. He rose and strode to the window.
“You can see waste right outside this window. In July of 1979, they repaved the sidewalk outside the West Wing offices on the White House grounds. Twice. In one month!”7
He strode back to the table, walking behind Humphrey and Wilkins.
1. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Farm Services, Bureau of Agricultural Risk Management, Agency of Invasive Species, Administrative Director.
2. Steven Hayward, The Age of Reagan, p. 47.
3. Editorial, “Fleeced Again,” Wilmington Morning Star, April 24, 1980.
4. Ronald Reagan’s radio commentary on “Government Cost,” November 16, 1976. Whether or not these figures are accurate, Reagan (and a Reaganite like Bader) believed they were accurate.
5. A slight exaggeration; in 1982, the comic strip Doonesbury portrayed a distraught EPA official crawling out onto his ledge in protest of ‘dismantling the whole enforcement team.’ Shortly thereafter, the real-life EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch, issued a memo to all EPA employees protesting “windowsill politics.”
6. Associated Press, “Furniture Spending Questioned,” March 18, 1980.
7. Frank Corimer, “Government Waste? Here Is a Perfect Example,” Associated Press, July 19, 1979.