By: Adam Stromme
Whatever one makes of their policies, there is no denying that the new 115th Congress is set to be historic. In many ways— from its myopic obsession with repealing Obamacare to claiming its “stolen seat” in the Supreme Court— it is one of outright reaction to the outgoing Democratic administration. After 6 years of grandstanding about the abuses of government and unprecedented obstruction, the anti-government coalition is now in control of the government itself.
But while the “new normal” brashly asserts its own self righteousness, often in 140 characters or less, something more sinister is lurking just beneath the surface. What the incoming administration appears ready to change is not just the content of politics in Washington, but the form. Far from Trump’s characteristically opaque promise to “drain the swamp”, what is emerging from the 115th Congress is instead a consensus so spiteful of its opposition that is trying to rewrite the very rules of engagement not just with the other party, but with the Civil Service itself.
What the incoming administration appears ready to change is not just the content of politics in Washington, but the form.
The attack began even before the 115th was sworn in. First, the Trump team circulated a 74-part questionnaire through the Energy Department seeking the names of any employee involved in ongoing efforts to combat Climate Change, whether through calculating its social costs or even simply attending international seminars discussing it. Similarly, they issued a one-page memo throughout the State department seeking to determine the scale of resources directed to any “existing programs and activities to promote gender equality”. Finally, they issued an immediate notice of termination for all politically appointed ambassadors without exception, leaving the United States without ambassadors to crucial allies like Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Alongside respecting personal differences, it appears the Trump team has no interest in upholding professional decorum.
But while the intensely partisan nature of the incoming administration has never been in doubt, the worst stunts were yet to come. Whether it was Trump’s choice of an evangelical crusader against public schools for education secretary, an oil executive with an opportunistic relationship with Russia at State, or Rick Perry for Energy, assuming he can remember its name, the spectacle of appointments sadly conforms to expectations.
What was really unprecedented occurred the day before the swearing in on the 3rd, when Republicans moved to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). The Committee, consisting of four Democrats and four Republicans, was formed in response to corruption from the 2008 crisis and became a thorn Republicans soon mulled pulling. Nonetheless, their swift reversal after Trump aired strong criticism of the move also suggests, as former Democratic staffer David Axelrod noted, the OCE stunt may have been little more than a “big, fat zeppelin” for Trump to deliberately shoot down.
Alongside professional distance, it appears the Trump team has no interest in upholding decorum.
But that same day another move, hidden beneath the zeppelin, also took place. This time, however, the move was not merely symbolic, and it faced fierce criticism. It involved the adoption of the Holman Rule into House procedure, an arcane 1876 House appropriations rule that has gone unadopted by Congresses since 1983, which enables legislators to surgically target the pay rate of individual civil servants or programs by simple majority.
Championed by “Freedom Caucus” Congressman Morgan Griffith as a way to cut spending, the real intent of adopting the Holman Rule is obvious. By granting themselves the power to target funding to specific programs and even individual employees within departments, Congressional Republicans achieve two things. First, they can directly channel resources within departments and even specific programs, and thereby erode their independence. Second, they can exert influence on the formal standing of prominent Federal employees, attacking those that disagree with Republican orthodoxy on climate change, environmental protections, and healthcare with extreme prejudice.
In attacking the independence of the federal government at the root, via the appropriations process, Republicans now have the ability to ensure that the Holman Rule either proves a weapon for administrative coercion or, should Democrats resist fiercely enough, that it simply becomes a powerful tool for gumming up the appropriations process. In any case, the inclusion of the rule into this years legislative cycle is an ominous sign to those already concerned with the petty authoritarianism of the President-elect.
As Republicans now gain the confidence to go back on the offensive, their penchant for majoritarian tactics is reflective of their wider distain for the comparatively modest reforms of the Obama era, and their desire to maximize their gains before the 2018 midterms. 2016 was widely regarded as a referendum on the Obama years, but it is better understood as the culmination of the steam engine of popular discontent with public institutions Republicans have been powering for nearly two decades. Midterms are rarely kind to the incumbent party, and with the President-elect entering office with historically low approval ratings, Republicans are aware that time is of the essence.
Bereft even of a figurehead on which to offload responsibility for the culture of dysfunction they have helped produce, the onus is now on Republicans to prove that they can represent the American people. Trump has made clear his desire to expunge all influence of Democratic control from his administration, alongside the economic, environmental, and social realities which bear an unacceptably Leftward bias. In so doing he has already proven a profoundly divisive figure, but his tactics are far from extraordinary compared to the mainstream of the Republican party.
Now a more philosophical question looms. Obama is to be denied a legacy at nearly any cost. This is taken as given.
But with these opening moves, what will Trump’s legacy be?