SUBJECT: Usolicited Advice TO: John R. Block Secretary-designate of Agriculture FROM: James C. Webster. Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Governmental and Public Affairs
You may have noticed a funny thing happened to you on the way to USDA: you ran into a Washington reporter.
They're different from the folks you're used to in Springfield, Ill. -- not necessarily better, mind you, but a lot more cynical and certainly much more probing and persevering.
I think I know you well enough to conclude that you didn't exactly intend the implication you left in your press conference -- that our objective should be to get other countries so hooked on U.S. food exports that they'll be more pliable in our foreign policy scheme.
The flap is pretty minor, as Washington flaps go, but it could be a good object lesson: choose your words carefully and precisely when you're talking to Washington reporters. It may be a blessing that it happened now, before you take office, because they'll grant you at least this short honeymoon.
But above all, don't let this experience tempt you to close the doors and become inaccessible. USDA has a tradition, through many secretaries of both parties, of openness and accessibility to the press. News media can be among your greatest assets in leading and shaping this great department and its allied institutions.
Don't hesitate to seek advice from the career public affairs professionals. Ever since USDA was chartered in 1862 by an act that, among other things, tells us to dispense information, there's been a spirit of professionalism and pride in a public affairs corps that I consider the best in government, bar none, and better than a lot you'll find in the private sector.
There will be other pitfalls. Here's some advice on how you might avoid them:
1. Pick a top staff that will follow your agenda and the president's agenda, not the priorities their agencies set, and hold them to it.
Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 conjured images of bureaucrats run amok -- unresponsive to their leaders' commands -- and probably most future presidential candidates will appeal to the same kind of anti-Washington sentiment out there beyond the Beltway.
In its totality, such a view is sharply unfair to the thousands of dedicated public servants who keep this government going, but there is an element of truth that you and all incoming policymakers should be aware of.
Career professionals who spend their lives in a bureau or agency develop a loyalty to that agency -- to its programs, the laws that guide it and, in some cases, to its clientele. They look straight ahead, and sometimes zealously pursue their missions. And that's good -- it's what the taxpayers are, for the most part, underpaying them to do.
But that single-mindedness has its shortcomings: those professionals can lose their peripheral vision, and it's difficult for agency loyalists to see their mission in the context of other priorities you will want to set.
Filled with this dedication, these skilled professionals will set about in the first month or two to "capture" the assistant secretary or the bureau chief appointed to be their boss. They will bring elaborate charts and graphs, impressive in their colors and their wealth of information, and seek to convince their supervisors that their programs and their missions are the most important things in government.
And before too long, if history is any teacher, those assistant secretaries and agency heads that you picked will be coming into your office not as your agents, your servants, but as the spokesmen and advocates for the agencies they supervise.
2. Ignore the tips that try to convince you that this or that careerist was too close to the Democrats and won't be loyal to you.
We got those hushed rumors every day, four years ago. Sometimes we listened, sometimes we didn't.
"That guy used to stuff envelopes at CREEP," we were told. "Watch out for her -- she got three promotions under the Republicans."
Most of this kind of advice is based on rivalry or personality -- and some of the people who will be identified to you as "too close to the Bergland boys" will be the same people they warned us about four years back.
By and large, the career people who have bubbled to the top have done so because of skill and talent. They understand this system and can be enormously helpful to you. At USDA, most have a dedication that transcends partisan politics, a deep and abiding commitment to the welfare of agriculture and the food and fiber system. If you give them clear and logical directions, they'll respond admirably. They'll be loyal to you and to the institution they're proud to serve.
3. Don't listen to buildings or follow orders from offices.
After eight years in government, I can honestly say that I never heard a building talk or an office write a cogent memorandum. But I've had dozens of plaintive calls from associates or staff people who were convinced they had to do something because "the White House said so."
You will discover that a telephone on the White House switchboard (even if the office is in a remote corner of the New Executive Office Building) is more intoxicating to a new man or woman in the government than a whole case of whiskey distilled from Illinois corn.
So when one of your new assistants reports breathlessly that "the White House" wants this or that by 5 o'clock, simply ask, "Who in the White House? The president or the janitor?"
But used selectively, this mystique can work to your advantage. Sometimes your staff can prod more from a reluctant GS11 in the South Building simply by invoking "the secretary's office."
4. Talk to members of Congress long and often, and don't ignore the Democrats up there. While the demands on your time often will seem more than overwhelming, set aside plenty for visiting with members of Congress. You can prevent gigantic problems before they develop, simply by bringing the congressional leadership into your confidence.
Tell them what you have in mind, ask their advice. Even if you don't follow it to the letter (you can't, because you'll get divergent opinions on even the most minor items), they'll fell much more in on the decision than if you had left them out in the cold.
Your experience in Sprinfield will stand you in good stead to work with the congressional Democrats -- if you don't let your staff convince you that hardball partisanship is the name of the game. In food and agricultural issues, as often as not, you'll find key Democrats willing to fight your battles as often as members of your own party.
It would be good to remember the sage observation of Don Paarlberg, an assistant secretary under three Republican presidents, that in agriculture the partisan differences are less between Republicans and Democrats than between what he calls a "legislative branch party" and an "executive branch party."
5. Don't be frustrated if you don't achieve every goal.
As a marathon runner, you know persistence, patience and stamina. They're good attributes for a secretary of agriculture. In addition to the pressures I've already outlined, you'll confront conflicting demands from other agencies of the executive branch, from USDA's many-sided clientele, from old friends and -- most of all -- from the icy-cold facts of the real world.
So if you find after a few weeks that cutting the food stamp program by several billion dollars without hurting the truly needy just isn't possible, or that congressional pressures won't allow any substantial reductions in rural credit programs, take a philosophical view.
If the foreign policy hard-liners win out and the president keeps the grain embargo on the Soviets, don't take it as a personal defeat.
And if you find your parking lot full of tractors some January morning because you don't get price supports high enough, remember Bob Bergland's advice: "It goes with the territory."