August 19 2011
Just Ring Up The USDA!
It's obviously been a long time since anybody put Barack Obama on hold.
The president's disconnect, so to speak, was obvious when he responded to the farmer in the midwest who revealed his worry that federal regulations might prevent him from earning a living. I know I've mentioned the farmer before, but in my mind this is a moment that should rank with George H.W. Bush's appearing to be unfamiliar with a grocery scanner.
The Corner did a good job of capturing the president's response:
Obama's (gratingly condescending) advice: "Don't always believe what you hear...Contact USDA. Talk to them directly...My suspicion is, a lot of times, they're going to be able to answer your questions and it will turn out that some of your fears are unfounded."
Yes, call the USDA! An enterprising Politico reporter decided to find out just how easy it would be for an average citizen to follow the president's advice. The process began Wednesday afternoon:
Wednesday, 2:40 p.m. ET: After calling the USDA's main line, I am told to call the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Here, I am patched through to a man who is identified as being in charge of "support services." I leave a message.
3:53 p.m.: The man calls me back and recommends in a voicemail message that I call the Illinois Farm Bureau - a non-governmental organization.
4:02 p.m.: A woman at the Illinois Farm Bureau connects me to someone in the organization's government affairs department. That person tells me they "don't quite know who to refer you to."
4:06 p.m.: I call the Illinois Department of Agriculture again, letting the person I spoke with earlier know that calling the Illinois Farm Bureau had not been fruitful. He says "those are the kinds of groups that are kind of on top of this or kind of follow things like this. We deal with pesticide here in our bureau."
There is more in this vein. Alas, the reporter was still at it Thursday:
9:42 a.m.: Asked if someone at the office might be able to provide me with the information I requested, the woman on the phone responds, "Not right now. We may have to actually look that up - did you Google this or anything?"
When I say that I'm a reporter and would like to discuss my experience with someone who handles media relations there, I am referred to the USDA's state office in Champaign. I leave a message there.
10:40 a.m.: A spokeswoman for the Illinois Natural Resources Conservation Service calls me, to whom I explain my multiple attempts on Wednesday and Thursday to retrieve the information I was looking for.
"What I can tell you is our particular agency does not deal with regulations," she tells me. "We deal with volunteers who voluntarily want to do things. I think the reason you got that response from the Cambridge office is because in regard to noise and dust regulation, we don't have anything to do with that."
More of same until...
Finally, I call the USDA's main media relations department, based here in Washington, where I explain to a spokesperson about my failed attempts to obtain an answer to the Illinois farmer's question. This was their response, via email:
"Secretary Vilsack continues to work closely with members of the Cabinet to help them engage with the agricultural community to ensure that we are separating fact from fiction on regulations because the administration is committed to providing greater certainty for farmers and ranchers. Because the question that was posed did not fall within USDA jurisdiction, it does not provide a fair representation of USDA's robust efforts to get the right information to our producers throughout the country."
Somebody should let the president know how this process works. Wonder if the number for Blue Heron Farm, where the Obamas are staying, is listed in anywho.com.