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Fear Factor: the Politics of Intimidation

January 17, 2017


The notorious Omarosa, who achieved fame as the bad girl on the original “Apprentice” made the above statement back in September after Trump put her in charge of “African-American outreach”.  Earlier this month, she was officially named to Trump’s White House team as assistant to the President and director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison focusing on issues such as community outreach.  Wouldn’t you just love for her to reach out to you?

As chilling as her words may be, measures recently taken outside of the limelight by the Republican leadership in the new Congress could pose a much greater threat to free speech and the ability of federal employees to do their jobs free of partisan intimidation, as a New York Times editorial pointed out today.

Last week at the instigation of Rep. Morgan Griffith (R – VA), a member of the radical House Freedom Caucus, the Republican-led House revived the “Holman Rule”, which allows Congress de facto power to fire federal employees as individuals or in groups by attaching amendments to spending bills that either eliminate their positions or reduce their salary to virtually nothing.  It could also be used to eliminate targeted programs, offices, or entire departments by simply defunding them.  Or it could be used to kill programs that certain congressmen just don’t like.  For example, Rep. Griffith reportedly wants to use it to end a federal program for care of wild horses.

The rule originated in 1876 as a way for ex-Confederate southern Democrats to kill post-Civil War reconstruction programs of the Republican-led federal government.  Now, of course, the parties’ ideological roles have reversed, and it’s the neo-confederate Republicans who are grabbing at every possible legislative strategem or procedural instrument to impose their contemporary version of States’ Rights.

Proponents of the Holman Rule have tut-tuted that the only reason for invoking it would be to improve government efficiency, and it would never, ever be used to target employees or programs for political reasons.

That might have had some credibility if the first act of the new Congress hadn’t been to try to eliminate the Office of Government Ethics.  Or if, when that failed, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R – UT) hadn’t summoned the director of that office to answer questions by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in closed-door session the day after Walter Shaub had stated publicly that Trump’s plan for avoiding conflicts of interest didn’t cut the mustard. Or if Trump’s Chief of Staff Reince Priebus hadn’t warned  Shaub that he better “be careful.” Or if one of the first acts of the Trump transition team hadn’t been to demand a list of all Department of Energy employees who had worked on climate change.

A potentially even greater intimidation tool is a new rule giving the Republican chair of 19 permanent committees power to issue subpoenas to depose people without requiring a member of congress to be present.   Eliminating the latter requirement opens the door to virtually limitless interrogations by staffers and to greatly increasing the number of subpoenas.   As the Times editorial points out, “people who are summoned for depositions often rack up thousands of dollars in legal fees and are seldom reimbursed for travel expenses”, and such inquiries have lately been used to carry out endless partisan vendettas as in the case of the Benghazi hearings against Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s petty vindictive character by now has been amply revealed for all to see, and his appointments to head cabinet agencies raise serious alarms about stifling employees, programs, or studies in federal agencies that don’t conform to the Trump agenda.

However, the more insidious danger may lie in obscure changes in congressional rules and procedures that will not get much attention in the media and are too arcane for most of the public to care about or understand.

It might be instructive to brush up on how the Jacobins took power during the French Revolution through manipulation of just such rules and procedures and then used them to destroy a generation of patriotic democratic dissidents.  Paul Ryan may not quite be Robespierre, but even Robespierre wasn’t initially the icy killer that he later became as the Revolution slipped from his control.  Remember, he ended up on the guillotine, and the Revolution ended as a monarchy with Napoleon Bonaparte in supreme control.

We’re still a long way from The Terror, but I don’t want to see a Tea Party version of McCarthyism either.  I think this is scary shit!

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