Earlier this week everyone was talking about the Republican move to gut the independent Office Of Congressional Ethics (which they later rescinded). But few people noticed the GOP brought back an old rule that could have serious consequences for federal agencies and the people who work for them.
You've probably never heard of the Holman Rule. That rule carries the name of the Indiana congressman who proposed it in 1876. It has been rarely used and it has not been part of the House rules package at all since 1983. But the fact it is being brought back now as we enter the age of Trump is of great concern.
The Holman Rule deals with amendments to appropriations bills. It permits any member of Congress to offer an amendment that reduces the number of employees at a federal agency or cuts the salary of any individual who is "paid out of the Treasury of the United States." It's a potentially dangerous rule at any time, but it's particularly worrisome given Trump's fondness for revenge on his detractors.
With this rule in place, if a particular agency, or an employee of that agency, angers President Trump in some way, he can have one of his minions in Congress bring an amendment to the floor. That amendment could propose to gut the funding for the agency, or it could reduce the salary of any employee at the agency down to $1.
Without the rule funding changes for agencies have to go through the appropriations process, which involves hearings in front of an appropriations committee. But under the Holman rule the appropriations process is bypassed, allowing members to submit an amendment for immediate consideration by the full House.
J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, explained his concern 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 rule was originally intended to eliminate political patronage jobs in the late 19th century. But soon afterward patronage jobs were replaced with civil service positions, rendering it unnecessary.
The Holman rule was revived by a Virginia Tea Party Republican named H. Morgan Griffith. The Washington Post says Griffith's aim is to increase the power of members of Congress over the federal workforce. According to their report a few members of the GOP caucus objected to reinstating the rule during a closed-door session, but when the rules package containing it came to the floor, every Republican voted in favor of it.
Both Democrats, who were united in opposition to the rule, and Republicans agreed the provision sends a signal to federal workers that their work is now subject to the ever-changing mood of Congress. As any worker can tell you, it's not easy to do your job when you feel like the boss is constantly looking over your shoulder. Now federal workers will have 535 "bosses" watching over them from Capitol Hill, as well as the big orange boss in the White House.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) criticized Republicans for reinstating the rule on Tuesday. Speaking on the House floor, Hoyer said,
Republicans have consistently made our hard-working federal employees scapegoats, in my opinion, for lack of performance of the federal government itself. And this rule change will allow them to make shortsighted and ideologically driven changes to our civil service.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) largely confirmed what Hoyer said, although he framed his comment to make this sound like a positive change. He told reporters,
This is a big rule change inside there that allows people to get at places they hadn’t before.
Some will argue that concern over this rule is a case of much ado about nothing. Any amendment sanctioning an agency or federal employee would have to pass both houses of Congress. A tough lift, perhaps, but not impossible. But here's a little perspective.
Trump's transition team has already asked for the names of Department of Energy Employees who are working on climate change. It takes no imagination at all to picture what is likely to happen to those employees and their positions with the Holman rule in place. And that same thing could happen to any worker at any federal agency.
At the very least Trump and his allies could create chaos in the federal bureaucracy with constant demands to reduce the size of one agency or another. But the far greater danger is it will allow the president and his party, both fans of revenge politics, to play out their revenge on people who are simply trying to do their jobs.