House Republican leaders on Tuesday re-upped a rule that lets lawmakers slash the salaries of individual federal employees, in a move that some Democrats condemned as an attempt to dismantle the federal workforce.
Tucked into a floor rule that teed up consideration of two unrelated bills on financial services and health policy is a provision that extends the “Holman rule,” a standing order whose revival has sparked controversy in recent years.
First created in 1876 by Rep. William S. Holman of Indiana, the rule now allows floor amendments on appropriations bills to target individual salaries or workforce levels. It essentially permits floor amendments that “retrench” expenditures — in other words, cut spending — using legislative language. The cuts could reduce federal salaries, compensation from the Treasury and amounts of money in individual spending bills.
After a decades-long hiatus, the House reinstated the rule in 2017 for the first session of the 115th Congress. Now it will continue through the second session.
In the most recent high-profile skirmish over the rule, Republicans tried to use it to gut a division of the Congressional Budget Office in July. Freedom Caucus member Morgan Griffith of Virginia proposed a Holman rule amendment as part of the Republican-authored omnibus measure. The chamber rejected that amendment, 116-309.
House Republicans’ decision to reinstate the rule may signal a willingness by leadership to give rank-and-file members broader latitude to force cuts in spending bills.
But that type of procedure can be difficult for the House majority to manage because it can be used as a dilatory procedure by the minority.
House Rules Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas pointed out as much when the chamber was deciding to bring the rule back. “I mean, if you go back and look how it was used … what term would you put to it, ‘abused’? Or ‘utilized’?” he asked in January 2017.
So far, Griffith said, the impact of the rule has been slight, and fears that it would decimate federal agencies or slow business in the House to a crawl have not materialized.
Griffith remains a supporter of the rule and had asked leadership for several months to extend it for the remainder of this Congress, he said during a break in House votes Tuesday.
“I went and talked to leadership about it and said, ‘Look, all the horrible things that were supposed to happen, as I predicted, didn’t happen. We didn’t have hundreds of amendments, we didn’t have wholesale layoffs proposed. We had some, and I carried one of those,’” he said referring to the CBO amendment he proposed in 2017. “We’re not looking for any wholesale destruction of the federal workforce.”
Opponents of the rule say lawmakers could wield it to settle scores or target certain employees.
Democratic Rep. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia blasted the extension of the rule as “nothing more than a backdoor way for Republicans to dismantle the federal workforce and carry out political vendettas at the expense of career civil servants.”
Asked whether the rule might become a way for Republicans to delay appropriations if Democrats were to take control of the House in November, Griffith brushed off the suggestion.
“That’s not the intent. It is true that the history of this is we had it for 70-some years and then it was suspended. ... Because Republicans were using it as a dilatory tactic against Tip O’Neill, he took it out,” Griffith said, referring to the late Democratic speaker from Massachusetts.
Griffith pointed to last year’s Holman amendments as evidence that Congress is now using the rule differently. He added that in the 116th Congress, new rules will be adopted, too.
Most of the provisions that are known as the Holman rule were removed from the standing rules in 1983, when O’Neill was speaker, as Griffith noted.
Not all Republicans are Holman rule fans. House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Chairman Tom Cole spoke out against reinstating it in April 2016 during a Rules Committee hearing.
The Oklahoma Republican said the rule could make it harder to pass appropriations bills, since it would “diminish the roles of the authorizing committees.”
Cole also said reinstating the rule “would involve appropriations bills in more controversies and increase the number of amendments to appropriations bills, which has already exploded in recent years.”
During the last year in which the Holman rule was in effect, 59 floor amendments were offered to 10 appropriations bills brought to the floor, Cole said at the hearing. By 2015, that number had skyrocketed to 456 amendments proposed on just seven bills, he said.
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