House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

HOUSE REPUBLICANS caused an understandable furor this week when they proposed to gut the House ethics office and then reconsidered. That two-day debacle diverted attention from another baleful “reform” that did succeed. Members of Congress awarded themselves the power to slash the annual pay of any federal employee to as low as $1, thereby essentially telling government workers to forget about civil-service protection: Their jobs now may rise or fall on political whim.

The Republican-led House voted to reinstate a procedural rule devised in 1876 that allows Congress to retrench agency spending by singling out a government employee through amendments to appropriations bills. Prior to adoption of the Holman Rule, named for the Indiana congressman who devised it as a hedge against the political patronage that then dominated government programs, an agency’s budget could be broadly cut but specific employees or programs couldn’t be targeted. Now it can be open season.

Republican leaders defend the restoration of this arcane power as a way to increase accountability. Fears of abuse are overblown, they assure us. Any acts of retaliation would have to be approved by a majority of the House and Senate, but it is telling that even Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), who engineered the move, couldn’t rule out the possibility of indiscriminate use. And why resurrect the rule if there is no thought of using it? We note that Rep. Barbara Comstock, recently reelected on a promise that as the only Republican member from Northern Virginia she would protect the interests of federal workers, considers the measure “misguided and ill informed” — but loyally voted with the majority to implement it.

The move follows efforts by President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team to identify employees in the Energy Department who work on climate change and jobs in the State Department devoted to gay and women’s rights. The combination of events underscores the inherent danger. Competence and performance — not adherence to ideology — should be the basis for federal employment. That is why the civil service replaced the system of political spoils.

If members of Congress don’t like particular programs — Mr. Griffith is apparently peeved by a federal program that pays for the care of wild horses on federal land in the West — they can choose not to appropriate funds to implement them. If they want to change civil-service rules to target poor performance or reward good work, they have that power too. If they are incapable of properly exercising these constitutional authorities, maybe it is their salaries that should be slashed to $1.