The Republican House majority proposed and passed a rules package on the eve of the GOP seizing control of the House, Senate, and the White House, and it contains more than a few surprises.
Republicans received widespread constituent outrage in response to a proposal to gut an independent congressional ethics office and bring it under the thumb of lawmakers, and they rolled it back in response. But the rules package contained other significant changes , including rules expanding Congress’ power to haul private citizens to Capitol Hill for testimony, and the revival of an obscure rule that would allow Congress to individually target and slash the pay of government workers and programs.
The Holman rule, named after the congressman who first proposed it in 1876, was nixed by Congress in 1983. The rule, now reinstated for 2017, gives any lawmaker the power to offer amendments to appropriations bills that could, legislatively, fire any federal employee or cut their pay down to $1 dollar, if the lawmaker so chooses.
Congress has always had the “power of the purse”: through the appropriations process, the legislative body can broadly cut the budget of any government agency. This Holman rule, however, allows lawmakers to exercise this power with laser focus and to target individual civil servants. A majority of the House and Senate would have to approve any such amendment.
Terminations or pay cuts passed through the Holman rule would override any civil service or other employment protections. Union leaders are particularly concerned with how the law might impact employees covered under collective bargaining.
“The jobs and paychecks of career federal workers should not be subject to the whims of elected politicians,” said the National President of American Federation of Government Employees, J. David Cox Sr., in a statement. “The Holman Rule will not only harm our hardworking federal workforce, but jeopardize the critical governmental services upon which the American people rely.”
The rule would allow Congress to target civil servants for political or ideological reasons. Lawmakers could, for example, specifically target civil servants who work on or speak publicly about climate change, or they could vote to drastically reduce the salary of IRS executives responsible for scrutinizing conservative groups.
The rule is particularly concerning coming only a few weeks after the Trump transition team asked the Energy Department for a list of scientists who have worked on climate change, and for the State Department to submit details of programs and jobs aimed at promoting gender equality.
The Trump transition team said that the survey sent to the Energy Department, which asked for a list of individual researchers by name, was “not authorized.” In a statement about the request to the State Department, the transition team issued a statement saying that the inquiry was to help President-elect Trump “ensure the rights of women across the world are valued and protected.”
Democrats, who voted against the rule package as a block just as Republicans voted for it, railed against the change.
“This rules package provides [the Congressional Majority] 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,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), whose northern Virginia district is heavily populated with government workers.
“It undermines civil service protections; it goes back to the nineteenth century,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in a floor speech 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 rule change will enable them to make short-sighted and ideologically driven changes to our nation’s civil service.”
Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) offered the bill. In an interview with the Washington Post, he said he considered it unlikely, but not impossible, that lawmakers might use the power of the bill to cut huge swaths of government workers.
“I can’t tell you it won’t happen,” he told the Post. “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?”
Even if lawmaker don’t use the new provision, its revival sends a clear message to federal employees that their livelihood is now subject to the whims of elected officials. That alone could have a chilling effect on the civil service and on work that runs counter to the Republican ideological agenda.