Up to a Point

The Federal Government Has Violated My Right to Chainsaw

Why won’t my chainsaw start after a bad winter? It’s all the U.S. government’s fault—and it’s enough to get a person Tea Party mad and start reciting the Constitution.

Joe Raedle/Getty

I have reached an almost Tea Party level of anger at the federal government, even though I’m a country club Republican. (Not that I belong to a country club, but one has one’s aspirations.) Normally my feelings about politicians are the same as a country club Republican’s feelings about his bratty children—send them off to board at some unpleasant place (Washington, D.C.) and let a strict and peevish housemaster (John Boehner) apply discipline. The little pests will go on to a supposedly prestigious institution (the Senate) choked in ivy (or cloture debate). And then they’ll get jobs that pay fortunes (lobbying) and be out of my hair and I can work on my golf game.

But at the moment I am furious with the USG and all its meddling in private affairs and all its intrusions on the freedom of individuals. My chainsaw won’t start.

I took it to the guy who fixes chainsaws. He said, “Ethanol.” I had left the gasoline in the chainsaw over the winter. The gasoline contains ethanol. Ethanol makes gasoline gummy. This gums up the chainsaw. Another couple dozen gummed-up chainsaws had been brought to the shop already. Mine should be fixed by July.

After a bad winter I’ve got fallen branches, limbs, and whole damn trees all over the place. Where I live is the country, not the country club. I can’t call the groundskeeping staff.

“Why’s there ethanol in my gasoline?” I asked the guy who fixes chainsaws.

He said, “Government.”

I did what any outraged American would do. I Googled.

The “Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007” is 882 pages long, passed after the Republicans blew the 2006 congressional elections with scandals and muffed Iraq nation building, and was meekly signed into law by George W. Bush. ESIA contains all sorts of things. It subsidizes electric cars. (Whether free “Think Globally/Act Locally” bumper stickers are part of the subsidy is unclear.) It insists on efficiency standards for household appliances so that your towels come out of the dryer refreshingly cool and damp. It requires those weird light bulbs that have to be changed wearing a hazmat suit. And it creates a training program for “Energy efficiency and renewable energy workers.” Which sounds like a federally mandated nap.

The violation of my right to chainsaw after a bad winter is found in Title II, Section A, which orders that U.S. production of biofuel must rise from the 4.7 billion gallons per year that the “Energy Policy Act of 2005” decreed to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022. And we’re halfway there. This is a lot of biofuel, which is why somebody, in an effort to get rid of the stuff, has been watering our gasoline.

Actually, somebody has been spiking our gasoline. “Biofuel” can be made out of anything that will ferment or rot, including digestive system waste products. (And if I catch a politician pooping in my chainsaw, I’ll do more than Google.) But most biofuel used in the United States is ethanol, which is alcohol, which is 200 proof vodka without the bottle-shaped lumberjack ad campaign. Somebody could be giving us a drink instead of a sticky carburetor. (Next time you’re pulled over for DUI tell the cop, “Breathalyze my tailpipe.”)

But somebody who? I can’t picture my congressperson losing the important mini-mart cashier vote (employment opportunities are scant out here in the woods) by pestering local gas stations about whether they have the requisite number of E10 pumps. I suspect the involvement of a government “agency.”

The logical pick would be Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, which has purview over half the subjects involved (three-quarters if you light a Marlboro while filling the chainsaw tank). But the ATF must have better things to do than bend an elbow at Chevron and Shell making sure the cocktail mix is nine parts refined petroleum to one part Everclear.

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I’ll guess EPA.

First click: “Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)/Fuels & Fuel Additives.”

First sentence: “EPA is responsible for developing and implementing regulations to ensure that transportation fuel [I do not use my chainsaw for transportation—that would be crazy] sold in the United States contains a minimum volume of renewable fuel.”

The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, appointed by the president and charged with putting the muscle into federal environmental statues, is Gina McCarthy.

Administrator McCarthy graduated from the University of Massachusetts Boston with a B.A. in social anthropology and went to Tufts University for her joint master’s degrees in planning and policy and environmental health engineering. I doubt this is the kind of engineering that would help fix my chainsaw.

Perhaps you think I am crazy, being incensed at the federal government because my chainsaw won’t start. But you do not have a 50-foot birch lying across your driveway. And I do have a point to make about civics that’s at least as large as the tree.

We elect somebody to make laws. He or she, with lazy, vague, and windy legislation, fobs the lawmaking off on somebody we elect to execute laws. He appoints somebody to enforce laws. She hires somebody who (safe to say) hires somebody who hires somebody to legally decide how much of a snoot-full we get with our unleaded premium.

You wouldn’t pass a no-parking-by-the-fire-hydrant ordnance using this process.

If I were a Tea Party Republican, I would recite the Constitution, Article I, Section 1, “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” And add, with crazed indignation, “THE EPA ISN’T IN THE CONSTITUTION!!!”

But I’m not a Tea Party Republican, so I won’t do that. However, I will make an observation that our day-to-day encounters with the federal government almost always involve some agency or commission or bureau or department headed by someone we didn’t vote for whose name, like Gina McCarthy’s, if I hadn’t Googled her, we couldn’t recall at gunpoint. (And members of those agencies can, if we seem like we’re being naughty, turn up with guns pointed.)

There’s TSA measuring our toothpaste tubes, laughing at the holes in our socks, and ogling our booty with “Advanced Imaging Technology.” IRS getting huffy about the $580 credit card charge at Gentlemen’s Pole Dance Paradise being a business expense. NSA making note of “I am furious at the USG.” NHTSA recalling our Chevy because we’ve got a rabbit’s foot hanging from the key chain. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services giving us the hairy eyeball if we’ve got a good tan. Customs and Border Protection airing the dirty laundry in our luggage. Department of Education butting in when our kid’s been a dope about doing his math homework. DEA on the lookout if the kid’s a teenager who shows untoward interest in organic gardening. FEMA coming by to do nothing with both hands if we’ve had a flood, tornado, or earthquake. Social Security making sure our check is late. Medicare suggesting we seek less costly medical treatment, such as Vicks VapoRub. Department of Health and Human Services ready to help if we’re bored and want to kill 10 hours on the Affordable Care Act website. Census Bureau knocking on our door, asking questions that would get any other stranger slapped. And, of course, EPA, from whom I expect to hear soon when it discovers that the 50-foot birch not only fell across my driveway but into the pond. Wetlands protected under the “Clean Water Act of 1972” are being polluted with birch beer precursor chemicals.

How many federal whatchamacallits are there? The government provides a list, “A-Z Index of U.S. Government Departments and Agencies.” It’s 11 pages long, printed in a “batteries not included” type size. I cannot get sufficiently caffeinated to make a count.

Just the “A” section ranges from straightforward “Army” to puzzling “Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Interagency Coordinating Committee.” (So all government employees get aches and pains at the same time?)

UShistory.org, produced by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Independence Hall Association of Philadelphia and generally given to uplifting views of the American Experience, throws its hands in the air when it gets to “The Organization of the Bureaucracy” on its “American Government” website.

The text reads, “Even the experts can’t agree on the total number of federal government agencies, commissions, and departments. Most estimates suggest there are probably more than 2,000…”

And to whom do these, the innumerable, answer? Sometimes—“Army”—we know. And sometimes no one seems to.

The IRS got into trouble for subjecting certain political groups applying for tax-exempt status to “intensive scrutiny”—asking them all sorts of inappropriate questions, such as “Boxers or briefs?”

This caused President Obama to say, “If in fact IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported…then that’s outrageous…And they have to be held fully accountable. Because the IRS as an independent agency…”

Wait a minute. Independent of what? So far there’s been an IRS internal investigation, a Treasury Department Inspector General investigation, an FBI investigation, a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform investigation, a House Ways and Means Committee investigation, and a year’s worth of congressional hearings. The acting commissioner of the IRS was fired. The commissioner of the IRS Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division was forced into retirement. The director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division was placed on administrative leave, resigned, and the House Oversight Committee has voted to hold her in contempt of Congress. And we still don’t know what was going on at the Internal Revenue Service, which remains as internally revenue-y as ever.

It wouldn’t be practical to elect the chief executive of every agency, commission, bureau, and department. There’d be 4,000 or 5,000 names on the ballot, assuming each position was contested. We’d be in the voting booth all day.

But it would be fun to elect them. Aside from the moment when the mob behind us waiting to vote began chanting, “Get out! Get out!” and ripped down the voting booth curtain and strangled us with it.

I mean, it would be fun to watch people campaigning for these offices. What could someone running for commissioner of the IRS possibly say that would make him or her a popular candidate? Maybe, “Soak the rich!” But we’ve been there with the Alternative Minimum Tax and know how the IRS tends to define rich down from “wealthy” to “alive.” Maybe, “Pole dancing is deductible.” But there goes the women’s vote.

Good yard sign for a Transportation Security Administration candidate: “He’ll Keep His Hands Off Your Junk.”

I’d like to watch Bob Schieffer moderate a debate between prospective NSA directors.

Schieffer: “Tonight CBS News presents a debate between…”

Candidate X: “That’s sensitive information.”

Candidate Y: “On a need-to-know basis.”

Schieffer: “Candidate X, What is your vision for the future intelligence-gathering role of the National Security Administration?”

Candidate X: “Secret and confidential.”

Schieffer: “Candidate Y?”

Candidate Y: “Top secret.”

And great amusement would be provided when the Republican nominee for director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services tried to attract Hispanic voters.

Best of all would be hearing the stump speeches from contestants for chairman of the Federal Reserve:

“My friends and fellow Americans, there’s just one thing this great country of ours needs. More money. We should be living at the corner of Easy Street and Greenback Avenue, with the gravy train running through our three-car garage and right between our custom-built outdoor grilling station and the in-ground pool. Let us join together to mulch the herbaceous borders with $5 bills, use sawbucks for scratch pads, and line the parakeet cage with $20s. I’ll keep the presses running at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing until we’re rolling on a river of the ready necessary. We’ll have to build a Hoover Dam to hold our household budgets. I see America with marshes of moola and bogs of Benjamins. America with lakes of lucre, waves of wampum, a Superstorm Sandy of simoleons, a Hurricane Katrina of cash. You’ll be gathering the animals, two by two, and headed to Home Depot for ark parts. You’ll gaze upon a boundless sea of shekels, standing on deck in Prada and Chanel. Vote for me and you’ll be farting though silk.”