You knew this would happen, didn't you? Politico has a sad tale of a reporter who took up Obama's advice to call USDA for answers to an Illinois farmer's burning question:
...Obama’s advice was simple: “Contact USDA.”
“Talk to them directly. Find out what it is that you’re concerned about,” Obama told the man. “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.”
Call Uncle Sam. Sensible advice, but perhaps the president has forgotten just how difficult it can be for ordinary citizens to get answers from the government.
When this POLITICO reporter decided to take the president's advice and call USDA for an answer to the Atkinson town hall attendee's question, I found myself in a bureaucratic equivalent of hot potato -- getting bounced from the feds to Illinois state agriculture officials to the state farm bureau.
Here's a rundown of what happened when I started by calling USDA's general hotline to inquire about information related to the effects of noise and dust pollution rules on Illinois farmers:
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."
"You only deal with pesticides?" I ask.
"We deal with other things … but we mainly deal with pesticides here," he said, and gives me the phone number for the office of the department’s director, where he says there are "policy people" as well as the director's staff.
4:10 p.m.: Someone at the director's office transfers me to the agriculture products inspection department, where a woman says their branch deals with things like animal feed, seed and fertilizer.
"I'm going to transfer you to one of the guys at environmental programs."
4:15 p.m.: I reach the answering machine at the environmental programs department, and leave a message.
4:57 p.m.: A man from the environmental programs department gets back to me: "I hate to be the regular state worker that's always accused of passing the buck, but noise and dust regulation would be under our environmental protection agency, rather than the Agriculture Department," he says, adding that he has forwarded my name and number to the agriculture adviser at IEPA.
On Thursday morning, POLITICO started the hunt for an answer again, this time calling the USDA's local office in Henry County, Ill., where the town hall took place.
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.”
She adds that the EPA would be more capable of answering questions regarding regulations.
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.”
So, still no answer to the farmer’s question.