In A Bid For Total Control, GOP Declares War On Civil Servants

Congressional Republicans love turning random bureaucrats into scapegoats for just about everything.
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It’s become so common that, by now, it’s almost expected.

Republicans, usually but not always armed with congressional subpoena power, single out a seemingly random bureaucrat as the face of an all-encompassing, nearly eschatological scandal.

These scandals rarely have grounding in reality, but wreak havoc both on the lives of the civil service employees who turn into their poster children, and create ripple effects throughout the federal bureaucracy.

The approach extends back to the IRS scandal of the Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) days, more recently into FBI employees overseeing the investigations into Trump and Russia, and is in the midst of being retooled today as House Republicans plow ahead with their new Weaponization Committee.

“You can think of it as an additional tool of control that political actors are using to generate the type of behavior and responsiveness that they want from these career officials,” said Don Moynihan, a professor and chair of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown.

It dovetails with the deep opposition on the right-wing to protections for workers, and, at least rhetorically, with a stated opposition to big government.

But whether this is about limiting the reach of government — or controlling it — is far from clear.

As Moynihan put it, “by delegitimizing public officials, [they] gain greater license to control them.”


Midway through the Obama years, the GOP found a scandal for the moment.

At the IRS’s Cincinnati field office, employees examining non-profits decided to use words relating to anti-tax groups to search more quickly for organizations that might require more scrutiny. The search terms included “Tea Party,” “occupy,” and “medical marijuana.”

Republicans seized on this episode, and spun the story into a broad narrative that cast the Obama Administration as siccing its tax dogs on innocent right-wingers. House Republicans pitched the furor directly at the Tea Party movement, which helped inflate it into a national scandal.

At its center was Lois Lerner, an IRS employee who, at the time, was head of the agency’s Exempt Organizations Unit — the division which examines non-profits.

Lerner refused to give in and say that she did anything wrong. Both liberal and conservative groups came under scrutiny from the IRS in the course of the scandal, which remained mostly localized to Cincinnatti. Nonetheless, she became a bogeyman for the right. Even under the Trump administration, House Republicans tried to get the DOJ to investigate her. Conservative media outlets have raised it again in recent months, after Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) tried to tie Special Counsel Jack Smith to Lerner.

Lerner did not return TPM’s requests for an interview.

“Regardless of whatever else happens, I know I did the best I could under the circumstances and am not sorry for anything I did,” Lerner told Politico in 2014.

Lerner may not have given in, but the IRS crumpled around her. She retired from the agency amid an investigation into the scandal, and the IRS put an end to its Cincinatti-area search term policy.


The trend intensified with Trump.

The former President was beset by investigations into his business practices, potential ties to Russia, and alleged payoff to a porn star.

Trump-Russia morphed into the biggest scandal, with the FBI initially spearheading an investigation into whether his campaign had coordinated with Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

The House GOP, under then-Oversight Committee Chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), focused on the Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, Peter Strzok, and another FBI official, Lisa Page, as reports emerged that the two had sent text messages disparaging Trump while the two were romantically involved.

Strzok, like Lerner, became a bogeyman for the right, as Trump and his supporters sought to portray the investigation as simply the product of “angry Democrats” who were bitter over losing the 2016 election. Strzok told TPM that the scandal, and the sudden fixation on him, was a “weird and disconcerting experience.”

“It’s one thing if you’re like a CEO, right, or if you’re some elected official, or somebody who’s gone through Senate confirmation, because you have this expectation that, at any given time, Congress might pull you up there,” Strzok told TPM.

“When you go down to, like, me, or other folks that are being called up there, you don’t have that,” he added.

Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor and of counsel at Lawyers Defending American Democracy, told TPM that “historically,” non-political appointee law enforcement officials haven’t had to worry about whether their actions could land them as the focus of a massive scandal.

“But whether that’s changed, I can’t say for sure,” he added.

Strzok was fired from the FBI in August 2018, under pressure from Trump and House Republicans.

Like Lerner, the Strzok scandal has continued to live a life of its own in the years since. He’s filed suit over his firing, while one recent report suggested that Strzok-related records were among those that Trump retained after he left office.


Strzok described what took place with him as “not legitimate oversight,” and suggested that it was part of an effort to build a narrative about “corruption and awfulness and the deep state.”

To Moynihan, cases like Strzok’s also speak to a desire for control on the part of the right.

“You can see this as a version of working the refs where in particular elected officials will want career officials that will favor their party,” Moynihan said.

Aftergut reflected that in many cases, it’s an effort not only to discredit the existing bureaucracy, but to replace it with a new one.

“If you can fill the civil service with people who love autocracy, and that’s your next run, all the better,” he said.

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