Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury, “Galileo before the Holy Office” (1847)

The Inquisition Congress, Abetted by Trump, Has Begun

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | January 6, 2017, 3:54 pm EDT
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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 sum, the House now claims the authority to cut any employee’s salary without justification, and to depose anyone whenever 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.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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  • treadlightly

    I am dismayed by the lack of participation here considering the importance of the topics being discussed.
    I wouldn’t know about this place if I hadn’t seen a reference to the UCS on PBS tonight.
    That program was a report on the state of nuclear waste disposal in America.
    That situation will be directly affected by Trump inc.
    We are clearly at a desperate point politically and environmentally now.
    The question is how can a minority of intelligent conscientious people overpower the majority of greedy short sighted people when they have taken control of the government?
    As long as the leaders of this mad dash to destruction are insulated from the adverse consequences brought about by the decisions they have made, they will continue to make these greedy decisions.
    Their man is at the helm now.
    Do they love their children? I doubt it.

  • solodoctor

    We can/should write our Reps in the House to encourage them to oppose these kinds of changes in rules, etc. But progressive, environmentally minded Reps are in the minority right now. Thus, is it also time for UCS to partner with other like minded organizations to file a lawsuit in federal court questioning the constitutionality of these kinds of actions? Would the ACLU or some other organization be a good partner for this?

    Please look into it and keep us posted. I would support such efforts with a financial donation.

  • MLChadwick

    I’m trying to figure out what Republicans are after by destroying government. Do they aim for a fully privatized economy, in which individuals who cannot afford to pay to travel on toll roads, buy a basic education for their kids, health care, etc. simply do without? Are they hoping to set up a two-tier society of aristocrats (them) and peasants (the rest of us)? What do the 1% have to gain by their determined pressing of the US further into Third World status?

  • Micky

    As a former Catholic, a Buddhist and a science teacher, I did not see the use of the term “Inquisition” as an attack on anyone but as an apt comparison to a dark era in our Western history…………….

  • greeneggsandsam

    Please excuse me for being sensitive, but as a pro-environment Catholic, who is constantly attacked by the atheist left and categorized with the tea party Christians I believe you would get more support from moderate righties if you would use more secular comparisons than the Inquisition. I would suggest something along the line of Stalinist or Maoist purges.

    • Michael Halpern

      That’s fair. For what it’s worth, I think that scientific thinking and faith are absolutely compatible, and that non-believers who bash religion aren’t doing anyone any favors. I have great respect for scientists who actively practice their science and faith. (I also respect many Tea Party Christians because I believe they are doing what they truly think is best for the country, even if I often disagree with their positions and methods).

      I really appreciate your comment and will take it into account in the future. I’m open to being persuaded that making a religious comparison can be an unwelcome distraction. Thanks for being constructive.

  • The politicizing of science is as wrong as in science in secret.

    When Representative Raul Grijalva, (D-AZ) initiated a partisan investigation to intimidate, shame, ridicule, and silence Global Warming skeptical scientists who provided Congressional testimony for the Republicans, where was our hero Michael Halpren, our expert on political interference in science and solutions to reduce suppression,
    manipulation, and distortion of government science?

    When Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), encouraged by 20 climate scientists supporting the administration’s position
    that Global Warming is settled science, called for political persecution of scientists whose climate research on science did not comport to the vapid alarmism expressed progressives politicians and scientists, where was the Union of Concerned Scientists?

    If I recall correctly, the answer was absent.

    But when Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) subpoenaed NOAA for the data and methods use, messages sent and received during the deliberative process, and evidence of political collusion with the administration… the Washington Post and others cried that such and fact finding endeavor to see these public funded research was having a ‘chilling effect’ on Global Warming research.

    Unlike Representative Lamar’s enquiry, Representative Grijalva investigation did not focus on the skeptics’ research, methods or findings (which he dismissed out of hand). He stuck solely to discrediting these qualified climate scientists by linking their funding to the fossil fuels industry. That wasn’t much of a mystery… but a message was sent to scientists whose utterances are not sympathetic to the Global Warming cause or in line with the Obama’s administration that Global Warming represents the single great threat to our national security. While potentially undisclosed industrial funding of research is a legitimate concern, climate science research funding from government, as is the case with Representative Lamar’s investigation, is many orders of magnitude larger than industrial funding of such work.

    Now there’s a new administration. Many of our new directors and leaders, who have been dismissed out of hand by politically motivated “scientists,” are going to lead these organizations that have refused to answer honest inquires
    into climate research.

    Why are organizations like NASA, NOAA and the EPA complaining? What is the Union of Concerned Scientists suddenly concerned about openness. Perhaps the disinfectant of daylight may very well expose that “the work of experts at NASA, NOAA, EPA, and other science agencies” are not serving the public interest.

    The politicizing of science is as wrong as in science in secret. With complete openness both of these issues would evaporate.

    “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge … the world has suffered far less from ignorance than from pretensions to knowledge. It is not skeptics or explorers but fanatics and ideologues who menace decency and progress.”American historian Daniel Joseph Boorstin

    • Michael Halpern

      Settle down, friend. You don’t recall correctly.

      A simple Google search reveals that I wrote two quick posts in the wake of the letters from Grijalva. In the first, I said that some parts of the request were appropriate (funding agreements), and some were not (drafts of testimony). In a follow-up post, I wrote about how a lack of a common understanding of disclosure standards creates a lot of confusion about what constitutes an attack on a scientist and what is legitimate inquiry. You can read these posts for yourself here:

      These posts were correctly interpreted by the media as “express[ing] worries that Grijalva’s questions may intrude on academic freedom” and that “universities would be justified in pushing back against the request for draft testimony and communications.” See:

      It’s also important not to go too far down the false equivalency road. The letters from Grijalva were in some ways intimidating because they come from a member of Congress. But Rep. Grijalva, as a member of the minority, had no ability to enforce his request. It’s a far cry from unilaterally-issued congressional subpoenas and willy-nilly depositions that could ultimately land someone in jail. This doesn’t change whether a request or demand is appropriate, but it does change its urgency and consequence.

      The rest of your response is a bit of a tangent, but you can find dozens of examples on this blog of my colleagues and I arguing for more transparency in government operations.

      And back to the topic of this post: if you want to argue that Congress should be able to defund the salaries of individual civil servants, or lower the bar for holding politically-motivated depositions, or substitute their own judgement for that of subject-matter experts, well, tell me why that would be in the public interest. So far, there’s no evidence that this is the case.

    • ocschwar

      “But when Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) subpoenaed NOAA for the data and methods use, messages sent and received during the deliberative process, and evidence of political collusion with the administration”

      He did not subpoena the NOAA for the data and methods. The data are publicly available. The methods are detailed in the published Karl study.

      He subpoenaed for emails because he knew full well he had no chance of poking holes in the data or the methods.

    • marte48

      I have no problem with “shaming” the Inquisition, or the flat earth society.

  • Richard Oliver

    Will do, I promise.