WASHINGTON ― House Republicans resurrected a decades-old provision in their new rules package that allows lawmakers to lower the salary or eliminate the job of individual federal employees.
Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, championed the arcane provision, called the Holman Rule for the Indiana congressman who created it in 1876, as a tool to allow lawmakers to make targeted spending reductions or eliminate positions they deem unnecessary. In an interview with The Washington Post, Griffith said he would like members to use the Holman Rule like a sniper rifle instead of like a shotgun.
Democratic lawmakers representing districts in the Capitol region, where many federal employees work, said in a statement that the rule would “undermine civil service employee protections by stripping away necessary safeguards.” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) called the measure “the Armageddon Rule,” and said it’s “a backdoor way for Republicans to dismantle the federal workforce.”
Democrats also said they feared the rule gives Republicans the tools to root out individual federal workers who hold views or perform work that is not favored by the incoming administration. President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team reportedly asked for the names of individual Department of Energy employees who worked on the Paris climate accord.
“The Republican Rules package provides them with the surgical tools necessary to reach into the inner workings of the federal government and cut away each part and employee that runs afoul of their ideological agenda,” Connolly said in a statement. “This, coupled with the President-elect’s proposed federal hiring freeze and the nomination of individuals to head agencies they openly oppose, could be devastating to the critical mission of the federal government.”
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) called the rule “political theatre.”
“With the inclusion of the Holman Rule in the House rules package, House Republicans have made it clear that they plan to continue their assault on our nation’s civil servants and to subject hardworking federal employees to the ideological and political whims of Congress,” Sarbanes said in a statement.
Congress has always held the power to appropriate or cut funds for executive-branch agencies. What makes the Holman Rule unique is that it allows individual members of Congress to cut the salaries or entirely eliminate the jobs of individual workers. These targeted cuts would override existing federal workplace protections.
Labor unions representing federal workers were deeply concerned.
“The so-called Holman Rule undermines civil service protections for the millions of working people who process our Social Security checks, safeguard our borders, support our military, research cures for deadly diseases, and carry out programs and services that are vital to our nation,” J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement. “Reviving this rule means lawmakers will be able to vote to cut the pay and jobs of individual workers or groups of workers without getting input from the agencies where these employees work.”
The Holman Rule was part of a package approved by the House in a mostly party-line vote on Tuesday. It expires at the end of the year, unless members decide to reauthorize it.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) assailed the new rule in his first speech from the floor of the House on Tuesday. “Republicans have consistently made our hardworking federal employees scapegoats, in my opinion, for lack of performance of the federal government itself, and this rules change will enable them to make shortsighted and ideologically driven changes to our nation’s civil service,” he said.
The Holman Rule existed in some form or another from 1876 to 1983. Griffith, the provision’s lead champion, first introduced language to revive the rule in early 2015.
Whether it will be used to cut vast swathes of federal workers or to retaliate against those with unfavored positions is an open question. Griffith told The Washington Post it’s possible lawmakers could use it to fire large numbers of workers, although he thinks they won’t.
One hindrance to the “armageddon” that Democratic lawmakers fear is that the reductions in salary or staff that the Holman Rule allows would need to come up as floor amendments to spending bills. House leadership normally brings spending bills to the floor under open rules, meaning anyone can offer any amendment.
Molly Reynolds, a Governance Studies fellow at the Brookings Institute, said that if House Republicans offered a flurry of Holman Rule amendments to spending legislation, open rules would allow Democrats to respond with their own barrage of amendments to gum up the process.
“We get to a point where the appropriations process under open rules becomes untenable and we’ve seen what usually happens in that case,” Reynolds said. “The leadership steps in and says, ‘We’re not going to have open rules on appropriations bills. We’re going to use structured rules like we use for most other legislation, where the Rules Committee decides which amendments are allowed on the floor.’”
In this scenario, Holman Rule amendments could still be offered, but they would have to clear the Senate, where Democrats control 48 seats and can filibuster legislation.
“The concern about unlimited amendments under this particular rule we have to think about that in the context of how appropriations bills generally get considered,” Reynolds said.