The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP revives rule allowing lawmakers to target federal agencies, staffers

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
5 min

The rules package House Republicans approved late Monday includes a provision allowing lawmakers to reduce or eliminate federal agency programs and to slash the salaries of individual federal employees.

Called the Holman Rule, the measure was proposed in 1876 but was sparingly used until it was reinstated by Republicans in 2017 and then dropped by Democrats two years later. In theory, it could apply to any federal worker or agency — but for now the move is seen as mostly symbolic, as the Democratic Senate could block Republicans from using the provision.

Even if an attempt to use the rule is ultimately blocked, though, “It’s the potential use that makes it so concerning,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. “If you’re a federal employee, this now becomes a risk that you have to think ‘I may get myself in hot water or have my salary dropped to zero or my job could get axed’” when making a professional decision.

“Symbols can cause harm. We need a workforce that is committed to the public good and feels safe to make that choice. That’s what’s at risk here,” he said.

Republicans have embraced the Holman Rule as part of the party’s aggressive stance toward the federal government, including President Donald Trump’s attempts to create new job classifications that would make it easier to fire government workers and his decision to move federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management out of D.C.

The GOP on Monday touted the revived measure as a critical check on the Biden administration.

During the House floor debate, Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.), an ally of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), blasted federal officials as “unelected bureaucrats, the true, real swamp creatures here in D.C.,” saying they had “run roughshod over the American people without consequence.”

She added, “Today marks our first move, and certainly not our last, to hold them accountable.”

Democrats and union leaders, though, denounced the rule’s revival as an opening for the GOP to attack federal agencies and the people working in them for political reasons. Democrats warned that Republicans could abuse the power to lessen federal workers’ salaries or fire them outright — particularly at a time when the government is investigating former president Donald Trump.

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) said the GOP approach would put at risk “any federal official that draws the wrath of the Republican majority.” A group of nine House and Senate members from the District, Maryland and Virginia denounced the rule as an attack on federal programs and individual employees.

“We are all too familiar with House Republican efforts to vilify and punish hardworking federal civil servants for doing their jobs. But while moderates and experienced leaders among their ranks tried to prevent the return of the Holman Rule in 2017, sadly it appears that no one in today’s House Republican conference seems willing to take that stand now,” said a joint statement.

The rule is named for a House member who proposed it nearly 150 years ago as an exception to the general practice of keeping policy decisions separate from spending decisions.

After reviving it in 2017, Republicans had little success in using the rule. Only two attempts to employ it made even partial progress, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

One attempt in 2017 would have transferred a division of the Congressional Budget Office with about 90 employees to another office. Republican sponsors argued that the change would have improved the agency’s assessment of the impact of legislation, but Democrats contended that it was intended to punish the CBO for negative assessments of GOP bills intended to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The other attempt, in 2018, would have reduced to $1 the pay of a federal employee in charge of an office that had been the subject of whistleblower complaints; opponents called the move an attempt to punish without due process one individual who was involved in a wide-ranging dispute.

In both cases, the amendments were defeated in bipartisan votes.

Republican backers on Monday, though, said that reinstating the rule would provide an important check on the federal government. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) — a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus — said the Holman Rule would “restore the people’s House” in the face of administrative action.

Federal employee unions and Democrats said that reviving the rule invites more chances to try to target agencies or individuals for partisan reasons.

“I think it’s another intimidation tool for civil servants who are simply doing their job,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) in an interview. “It is designed to provide a chill effect on the ability of civil servants to do their jobs and carry out enforcement regulations and compliance with the law.”

“The whole point of it is to use it recklessly. There’s no way to use it responsibly,” said the public policy director of the American Federation of Government Employees, Jacqueline Simon. “It goes around everything that protects the civil service from political corruption — not just federal employees but entire agencies.”

“It is precisely for theater and to create chaos and disrupt the operation of federal agencies, including law enforcement agencies,” she said.

Tony Reardon, the head of the National Treasury Employees Union, argued that reinstating the rule insults the integrity of federal workers.

“Taxpayers want a federal workforce that is based on merit and employees who carry out their agency missions with professionalism and integrity,” Reardon said in a statement. “For Congress to upend those standards and punish individuals because of the work that they are assigned is outrageous.”

Tony Romm contributed to this report.