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TV Review : 'Frontline' Goes Digging in Agriculture Dept.


"Frontline" wades into the swamp of vested interests known as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and emerges displaying a lot of rotten federal waste in "Is This Any Way to Run a Government?" Even considering this series' vaunted tradition of punishing and probing investigative journalism, this is one of its most bruising hours.

The title question is, of course, rhetorical, linked as it is to the Clinton Administration program to "reinvent government." The USDA presents the clearest and perhaps most daunting test of Clintonian reform efforts, and former USDA secretaries insist on camera that the agency is unreformable.

Clinton's agriculture secretary, Mike Espy, had begun to implement reforms but recently announced his resignation amid evidence of improper acceptance of perquisites from agribusiness giant Tyson Foods Inc., a company the USDA regulates. Espy defiantly tells "Frontline" that other agriculture secretaries dabbled in similar conflicts of interest but that he was targeted because his reforms threaten special interests.

Yet Espy's bill, which Congress passed this fall, does nothing to reform the bloated, easily abused commodity program for farmers, one of three key USDA areas examined here. As with the department's equally bloated Rural Electrification Program, commodity subsidies, created during the Depression to preserve family farms, have long outlived their original purpose.

The granddaddy of bloat, though, is the Forest Service, which a lot of people wrongly assume is part of the Interior Department. The service, which employs an astonishing 40% of all USDA staffers, is a kind of virtual reality agency in which costs are listed as assets and the Congressional agriculture committees do not even oversee it.

According to former Forest Service employee Jeff Debonis, the Forest Service's main job is to help the timber industry cut as many trees as possible. According to former USDA secretary Ed Madigan, the agency is "impenetrable," full of career bureaucrats who resent any reforms.

It is this kind of bureaucratic entrenchment, as well as agribusiness' lobbying and campaign largess to Congressional members, that make reform ideas so Quixotic.

* "Is This Any Way to Run a Government?" airs at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15.

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