In January, the new Republican-led House of Representatives created a Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government by a party-line vote of 221 to 211. All House Democrats opposed it. Unfortunately, the effort serves as another sign of just how politicized free speech issues have become in the United States. Worse yet, it threatens to accelerate efforts by both parties to undermine the actual intent of the First Amendment by converting it from a shield to limit government overreach and into a sword to be wielded against one’s enemies.

Republicans like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who will head the new Weaponization Subcommittee, insist that the body is needed to address executive branch overreach and free speech abuses in particular. Democrats say the effort reeks of a witch hunt, resembling the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee led by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy in the 1950s.

Like so many other things the two parties do these days, there is an element of political theater to this and other “investigatory” efforts, with Republicans and Democrats taking turns saying the other side is guilty of overreach and should somehow be punished for it.

Republicans are concerned about government overreach during the COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as the sort of government strong-arming of social media companies revealed by the Twitter files. Republicans also cite the Biden administration’s now-abandoned effort to create a controversial new Disinformation Governance Board within the Department of Homeland Security to police supposedly dangerous forms of speech.

Building on these concerns, the Weaponization Subcommittee’s charter says the body will, “investigate matters related to the collection, analysis, dissemination, and use of information on U.S. citizens by executive branch agencies, including whether such efforts are illegal, unconstitutional, or otherwise unethical.”

In one sense, that is a worthy congressional oversight function. America’s administrative state has grown too big, too powerful and too free of constitutional accountability as Congress continues to delegate broad, ambiguous authority to it. Republicans are right to call for some constraints on administrative power, or at least some serious transparency.

On the other hand, efforts like the Weaponization Subcommittee could be a double-edged sword for Republicans because they have had a hand in creating many of these problems, and have recently abused power in the same way as Democrats. Government watchdog leadership argues that “Donald Trump systematically misused the federal government for his own political and personal gain, and Jordan and many of his colleagues stood by or affirmatively defended Trump’s actions.” Even if Republicans disagree with that characterization, Democrats are all too eager to use expanded government powers like this new subcommittee to turn the tables on them later.

The larger problem here is that both Republicans and Democrats insist they are true defenders of free speech, yet both parties increasingly view the First Amendment and “free speech” claims as a means to an end. While the First Amendment is supposed to act as a bulwark against government abuse, the two parties mostly use it to score political points today. Worse yet, they are willing to ignore it when they want to browbeat their enemies using amorphous administrative state powers or even just endless threats and “jawboning” using their bully pulpit.

Analysts have highlighted that “social media jawboning is both more common and more difficult to combat than the pressure faced by intermediaries in the past.” These government jawboning efforts betray principles that conservatives care about deeply, including a respect for the rule of law, free markets and limits on regulatory overreach.

Unfortunately, conservative jawboning efforts are intensifying. Just this week, for example, several Senate Republicans fired off a letter to DirecTV accusing the satellite company of censoring conservative television network Newsmax by not renewing it on their channel lineup. There is no “censorship” here, however. DirecTV and Newsmax are involved in a garden-variety carriage dispute over money. This happens regularly between cable systems and content providers. Government should not be strong-arming parties by putting a thumb on one side of the negotiating scale because they favor a particular channel’s content. Again, that betrays the First Amendment and “weaponizes” federal power for political ends.

Republicans have engaged in other jawboning behavior in recent years. At a 2020 hearing, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R‑Tenn.) asked Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai if the company had yet fired an employee who had been critical of her. Sen. Josh Hawley, (R-Mo.) has repeatedly come after Twitter and other social media companies for their content moderation choices. Hawley even suggested that “we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared” and floated anti-social media legislation that former President Donald Trump also supported. Hawley also joined Trump at a White House “Social Media Summit” in 2019 to browbeat private companies and threaten them with regulation, shortly after Trump declared the news media “the enemy of the American people.”

These threats and jawboning efforts may just seem like business as usual in Washington, but such tactics are intensifying and threaten to spiral into endless cycles of political persecution and business harassment. It is unlikely that the new Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government will be ​​investigating efforts by Republicans to harass their enemies, but it is certain that Democrats will flip the script and play the same games whenever they are next in control of the full Congress.

If conservatives want to get serious about stopping the weaponization of federal power, they need to lead by example and realize that two wrongs don’t make a right; they just make big government even bigger. The solution to “weaponized” government is a smaller, more limited government

Image credit: TY Lim