Democracy’s Ugly Side

Posted on Wednesday, May 18, 2022
by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
star chamber

Yes, I know, the title would be more compelling as “Democracy’s lovely side” – because there’s tons of “ugly,” not much “lovely.” But some “ugly” is too ugly. Congress is eating its own – subpoenaing members for a show trial around events on January 6, 2021, threatening jail. This is beyond the pale.

Let’s be honest, if laws are twisted for political gain, that stinks. This is all political, not legal. Do a quick recap, and the progressive political ugliness just becomes obvious.

First, Speaker Pelosi denied requests by the minority leader to place specific Republicans on the “select committee” – even though all committee memberships are set by intra-party selection. Accordingly, the committee has no “ranking member” – which flies in the face of due process.

Second, half a dozen legal – not political – investigations have been conducted, along with various stages of legal proceedings against the spontaneous mob that stormed the Capitol. A high-profile, election-year, wire-brush of opposing members of Congress is just crass.

Third, as a former assistant Secretary of State whose job was to help stabilize unstable countries with law enforcement training – in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and other vacation spots – my definition of “insurrection” and the prevailing “political one” differ.

Objectively, most “insurrections” involve assailants with automatic weapons, extensive planning, many people dead, and governments gone. This was clearly a spun-up, criminal mob – whatever the genesis – but hardly likely to end the United States as we know it, not in buffalo horns.

Fourth, adding to the political stink of this – despite criminal violations rightly prosecuted, albeit with odd pretrial detentions – Congress is not generally authorized to subpoena other members for political excoriation, or even non-members, who can all quash frivolous subpoenas.

Without a bona fides legislative purpose or proven criminal act by a member being subpoenaed, the latter typically addressed by Justice, demanding members appear under penalty of contempt, prosecution, and jail – is over the top. This is what tin pot dictators do. 

All of this vectors to the core of “ugly.” When a one-sided, patently partisan committee – is this anything else? – sets out to score political points with tax dollars, they disserve the country. Whatever the politics, we should not want tax dollars blown on show trials and muckraking.

To be clear, oversight matters – and is historically directed to saving American tax dollars, preventing waste, fraud, and abuse within government. That is not what this is.

Theodore Roosevelt warned against this kind of cheap trick in 1906. “The men with the muck rakes are often indispensable…but only if they know when to stop raking the muck . . .” These days, creating muck to rake seems all the rage, a national pastime.

The real ugliness is what needs to stop. Members of Congress aiming to inflame passions by inflicting unprecedented subpoenas on each other leads nowhere good – and is likely to produce an equal and opposite reaction after November.

Doing this kind of thing, mudslinging because you can, wasting other people’s money, forcing members to go to court and quash frivolous, politically motivated subpoenas, amounts to adolescent, irresponsible, and ultimately undemocratic behavior.

The subpoena process – different in Congress and Courts – is used to elicit facts essential for trial, not known or otherwise provable, and requires a witness under oath.

To see how far removed from this trick –threatening contempt and jail against other members – is from typical practice, members do not and never have demanded each other take an oath when testifying on anything.

So, what is this? At a time when Democrats seem unmoved by 18 USC Section 1705 and State laws barring intimidation of Supreme Court justices, Congress is now notching things up.

Not only will they not stop intimidation, they participate in it. To be clear, this is what happens in places like Russia, China, Venezuela, and oppressive regimes. Legal processes is twisted to concentrate power, destroying public trust.

Congress has enough trust issues, having betrayed longstanding procedural norms, made snap impeachments, and jammed Americans with inflation through overspending. The last thing they need now is to start impaling each other with politically motivated subpoenas.

The bottom line: modern politics is ugly, often unfriendly, personal, ignoble, and filled with the sort of slime most Americans do not like. But until now, there has been a line that held – members did not threaten each other with subpoenas, contempt, prosecution, and jail. Apparently, that line is now breached. Democracy is messy, but norms matter, otherwise we lose it all. Threatening other members with politically motivated subpoenas, contempt, prosecution, and jail is too much.