The Holman Rule, named after an Indiana congressman who devised it in 1876, empowers any member of Congress to offer an amendment to an appropriations bill that targets a specific government employee or program.
A majority of the House and the Senate would still have to approve any such amendment, but opponents and supporters agree that it puts agencies and the public on notice that their work is now vulnerable to the whims of elected officials.
Democrats and federal employee unions say the provision, which one called the “Armageddon Rule,” could prove disastrous to the federal workforce, when combined with president-elect Donald Trump’s criticism of the Washington bureaucracy, his call for a freeze on government hiring and his nomination of Cabinet secretaries who seem to be at odds with the mission of the agencies they would lead.
“This is part of a very chilling theme that federal workers are seeing right now,” said Maureen Gilman, legislative director for the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal employees.
The rule is particularly troubling to Virginia and Maryland lawmakers and the District’s nonvoting delegate, who represent large numbers of federal workers in the national capital region.
The Holman provision was approved Tuesday as part of a larger rules package but received little attention amid the chaos of Republicans’ failed effort to decimate the House ethics office on the first day of the new Congress.
[A day of chaos at the Capitol as House Republicans back down on ethics changes]
Republican leaders say the rule increases accountability in government and played down concerns — some within their own party — that it will usher in broad changes to the appropriations process.
As a concession to Republicans who oppose the rule, leaders designed it to expire in one year unless lawmakers vote to keep it in place.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that insofar as voters elected Trump with the hope of fundamentally changing the way government works, the Holman Rule gives Congress a chance to do just that.
“This is a big rule change inside there that allows people to get at places they hadn’t before,” he told reporters this week.
Asked which agencies would be targeted, he said that “all agencies should be held accountable and tested in a manner and this is an avenue to allow them to do it.”
The rule was the first thing House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) railed against Tuesday in a floor speech objecting to an overarching rules package, which includes the Holman provision.
“Republicans have consistently made our hard-working federal employees scapegoats, in my opinion, for lack of performance of the federal government itself,” he said. “And this rule change will allow them to make shortsighted and ideologically driven changes to our civil service.”
The rule changes the process of passing spending bills by allowing any rank-and-file House member to propose an amendment that would cut a specific federal program or the jobs of specific federal employees, by slashing their salaries or eliminating their positions altogether.
Before this rule change, an agency’s budget could be cut broadly, but a specific program, employee or groups of employees could not be targeted because of civil service protections.
Republicans and Trump advisers have been quietly drawing up plans since the election to erode some of the job protections and benefits that federal workers have received for a generation, starting with a hiring freeze Trump has pledged to put in place in his first 100 days in office.
[Trump has a plan for government workers. They’re not going to like it.]
An end to automatic raises, a green light to fire poor performers, less generous pensions and a ban on union business on the government’s dime — these changes are all on the table now under unified Republican rule in Washington.
Conservatives were thwarted from making these changes under President Obama, but with Trump pledging to shrink big government and shake up a system he told voters on the campaign trail was awash in “waste, fraud and abuse,” they are more emboldened than ever.
Federal unions and their advocates in Congress — and even the Republican behind the rule himself — scrambled Wednesday to understand how the rule would work.
“Now any backbencher can make an amendment to hear his voice heard on a particular program or group of employees,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “We’ll see how it’s used, if it’s used.”
In light of recent inquiries by the Trump transition team for a list of Energy Department scientists who have worked on climate change, advocates for federal workers say they worry that bureaucrats could be targeted for political reasons.
Jeffrey Neal, former personnel chief at the Department of Homeland Security and now a senior vice president for ICF International, said the rule “creates a lot of opportunity for mischief” because lawmakers could act to reduce the salary or eliminate the job of government officials they don’t like.
For example, the House could have voted to significantly reduce the salary of Lois Lerner, the senior executive at the center of the IRS scandal that gave extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Lawmakers could, in theory, even vote to roll back the 2.1 percent pay raise Obama gave federal employees starting Jan. 1, he said.
Early in its history, the rule was used to eliminate patronage jobs, particularly customs agents, in the late 19th century before the federal workforce shifted to a nonpolitical civil service.
The rule was dropped in 1983, when then-Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) objected to spending cuts devised by Republicans and conservative Democrats.
The revival of the Holman Rule was the brainchild of Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), who is intent on increasing the powers of individual members of Congress to reassign workers as policy demands.
Known as the unofficial parliamentarian in the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus, the four-term congressman sought the rule change out of frustration with an $80 million federal program that pays for the care of wild horses on federal land in the West, which he considers wasteful.
He favors a strategic application of the law, likening it to a bullet from a sniper rifle rather than a shotgun. It’s unlikely — but not impossible — that members will “go crazy” and cut huge swaths of the workforce, he said.
“I can’t tell you it won’t happen,” he said in an interview in his office. “The power is there. But isn’t that appropriate? Who runs this country, the people of the United States or the people on the people’s payroll?”
Although Griffith has few federal workers in his poor and rural southwest district, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) noted that many of Griffith’s constituents rely on federal programs.
“It’s a backdoor way of furthering your desire to dismantle that part of the federal operation,” he said.
Connolly and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who each represent thousands of government employees in their Northern Virginia districts, said the rule heralds a new era of granular governing, giving the party in power the ability to mess with federal agencies at a microscopic level.
Several House Republicans did try to block revival of the Holman Rule in a closed-door meeting Monday evening.
Author: Jenna Portnoy and Lisa Rein