By Michael Halpern, Union of Concerned Scientists
The increasingly reckless House of Representatives, caught up in a public mutiny, may have walked back its abandonment of congressional ethics. But it simultaneously took several other steps that will enable corruption and greatly expand political influence over the work of experts at NASA, NOAA, EPA, and other science agencies, compromising their ability to serve the public interest.
The House rules assault
This week, the House made significant changes to the rules under which it operates. First and foremost is the Holman rule, resurrected from the 1870s, just at the end of Reconstruction. This rule allows Congress, through spending bills, to target specific initiatives and reduce the salaries of individual federal employees whose work they find irksome to $1.
Does your research suggest a chemical company that happens to be located in the district of a powerful member of Congress is responsible for environmental contamination? You could be on that list.
Remember Dr. Tom Karl, the NOAA scientist who published a climate change paper in Science and was rewarded by a subpoena from House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith? Never mind that the chairman’s actions were widely repudiated by scientific organizations. He can now just dispense with the subpoenas and retaliate against Dr. Karl by effectively eliminating his salary (or even threatening to do so).
But don’t think those baseless, political subpoenas are going away. Another change in the House rules suggests they’re going to get worse. Previously, in most committees a member of Congress needed to be present for a formal deposition under a subpoena to move forward. Now, depositions can be done by staff, whether or not members are present or Congress is in session.
In yet another rules change, the House determined that it is no longer necessary for committee chairs to affirm that subpoenas are “material and relevant,” calling that move “redundant,” perhaps attempting to set precedent that committees can go after whatever they want—a potential threat to civil liberties of all who question government.
In sum, the House now claims the authority to cut any employee’s salary without justification, and to depose anyone whenever it wants about whatever topic it wants. Even Joseph McCarthy would have been shocked.
The legislative assault
There are 52 new members of Congress who have barely found their offices, much less had time to read, analyze, and discuss legislation. But that didn’t stop the House leadership from ramming through, with little discussion or debate, legislation that would greatly increase political control over the scientists who are charged with implementing our nation’s public health and environmental laws.
The radical REINS Act passed yesterday in a mostly party-line vote. It would substitute political judgement for scientific judgement by requiring Congress to approve every significant public protection developed by federal agency scientists. This means politics could further prevent the government from protecting communities from unsafe drinking water or chemical plant explosions. The Midnight Rules bill also passed this week. It would enable Congress to roll back rules finalized last year that took years and many thousands of scientist-hours to develop—such as the standard that would improve fuel efficiency for heavy duty trucks, saving truck owners money and cutting carbon pollution.
Hey, freshman member of Congress. Are your phone lines working yet? Are you fully staffed?
Next week comes the Regulatory Accountability Act, sponsored by Bob Goodlatte, the same member of Congress who moved to gut the congressional ethics office. It’s a radical bill that would make laws like the Clean Air Act and Safe Water Drinking Act unenforceable, putting millions of Americans at risk. This bill, too, will likely pass the House with votes by members who have little understanding of its potential impact.
A strategy of sabotage
It is clear that many in Congress have little interest in government working. They aim to destroy faith in government by sabotaging its ability to function and protect the American people. And they see in the president-elect someone who may help them achieve this objective.
Donald Trump is so far sympathetic to attempts to undermine the federal scientific workforce. His transition team has targeted employees at the Departments of Energy and State. He has nominated people who have made careers of compromising the missions of the agencies they are being asked to lead. In this sense, it really doesn’t matter if Trump has a clear vision for where he wants to take the country. What matters is that those are filling the ranks of his administration know exactly what they want to do and are ready to take advantage of the commander in chief.
It is up to us to stop those in Congress and the administration who prioritize private interests over the public good. They dress up their attacks in arguments about bureaucracy run amok. They exaggerate the costs of science-based government rules while ignoring the massive benefits.
We need to see through this smokescreen. The American people did not vote to give politicians more control over the scientists who have dedicated their lives to protect them, or to shift the burden of environmental and public health threats away from those who create them.
It’s time to be calling Congress every time one of the bricks of democracy is smashed. Express your displeasure about the Regulatory Accountability Act—expected on the floor next week—and the legislation that has already passed. And let them know we will continue to watch and they will be held accountable.