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New rule offers way for individual lawmakers to cut federal pay, jobs

The House of Representatives kicked off the new year by voting to re-instate a long-dead—and highly controversial procedural tool; the Holman Rule.

The House of Representatives kicked off the new year by voting to re-instate a long-dead—and highly controversial—procedural tool; the Holman Rule. And the news has federal employee unions exploding in protest, as well as trying to sort out its potential effects.

The rule, which dates back to the 1800s, permits House members to propose amendments that can reduce the pay—or cut entirely—specific federal employees and positions. The tool was put on the books in 1876, but stripped down by 1885. Though it had a presence in history, for most of the last-century-and-a-half, individual members simply have not had the power to fine-tune spending at the level of controlling specific federal jobs funded through appropriations bills.

The latest incarnation of the rule, passed Jan. 3, is labeled, the “Holman Rule." The rule is potentially applicable to any “provision or amendment that retrenches expenditures by a reduction of amounts of money covered by [an appropriation] bill,” and it specifically applies to any provision or amendment “offered after the bill has been read for amendment.”

Hence, the new Holman Rule, if it stands, will offer truly sweeping powers for members who might be inclined to use it. According to the actual text of the provision, it would permit a member to reduce or eliminate spending on a position, specifically enabling them to modify a bill by: “(1) the reduction of amounts of money in the bill; (2) the reduction of the number and salary of the officers of the United States; or (3) the reduction of the compensation of any person paid out of the Treasury of the United States.”

Union reaction

“It’s draconian, that’s what it is,” Matthew Biggs, legislative director for the union of International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, told FEND. “The idea that the leadership let this into the rules package is astounding to me," he added.

“It surprises me, because reasonably-minded people—from both parties—can see that this is opening a Pandora’s box of all kinds of problems—including funding and political problems, many likely to come along down the road,” Biggs told FEND. “The real trouble is, as people in the House know, appropriations bills generally come under open rules—which means anyone can offer an amendment. Normally, however, an amendment to an appropriations bill can’t be legislative in nature. But now, with this, anyone with an unreasonable idea about an appropriation can change it—they could even target as few as one federal employee to be defunded, fired.” Biggs said his union is squarely against it.

The American Federation of Government Employees also has condemned the House move, saying in a statement that it “strongly opposes [the] rule change being considered by the House of Representatives that would allow lawmakers to reduce the salary of any federal government employee, or eliminate a federal worker's job, without appropriate planning or scrutiny.”

“The so-called Holman Rule undermines civil service protections for the millions of working people who process our Social Security checks, safeguard our borders, support our military, research cures for deadly diseases, and carry out programs and services that are vital to our nation,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr., said in a Jan. 3 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,” Cox continued. “The jobs and paychecks of career federal workers should not be subject to the whims of elected politicians. The Holman Rule will not only harm our hardworking federal workforce, but jeopardize the critical governmental services upon which the American people rely.”

Cox continued: “This rule could be used by a member to start holding up important legislation, including very good legislation, like something slated to pay for the Department of Homeland Security, or the VA or a particular veterans’ benefits bill,” Cox told FEND. “All of that, just because a member might want to target a single [federal employee], or maybe a small group of them—and maybe just because of a personal vendetta. I think you could see some reaction from the American public on this.”

Cox pointed out that public protest played a role in stopping a recently attempt by some in Congress to do away with existing House ethics processes. “You know what happened—they got hundreds of thousands of phone calls, with many in the public going ballistic,” he noted. “It didn’t take long for that to go away.”

But he quickly added that, on second thought, stirring up public pressure for rolling back the Holman Rule is likely to be harder to come by. “John Q. Public understands ethics, and the need for ethics standards for people in their jobs—so the effort to get rid of the move against ethics controls they saw immediately as an attempt to get away with something,” he said. “But with the Holman Rule, even for people who have worked in the federal government for twenty years or more, they’re like, ‘What is that?’—because it just hasn’t been an issue, a term people know, for a very long time.”

Another of the large federal employee organizations, the National Treasury Employees Union, also came out strongly against the rule.

“NTEU supported an effort to strike the provision reinstituting the Holman Rule from the rules package but that effort was voted down,” the union’s president, Tony Reardon, wrote in a letter to Republican House leaders that the union shared with FEND.

“In advance of the vote, I sent a letter to House Republicans opposing proposed changes to rules that govern legislative procedure for the House of Representatives,” Reardon noted in his most recent letter to Congress. “Under the Holman Rule, certain amendments would be allowed on appropriations measures that are legislative in nature—[amendments which without this change] are generally banned. Amendments that seek to reduce the number of federal employee positions at agencies, as well as reduce federal employee salaries and compensation, could be offered.”
 
“In the letter, I said that funding for federal agencies and employees should be determined through the course of a deliberative process, and should not be at the mercy of political floor statements that only serve to destroy Congress’ inherent role to provide funding for the federal government’s operations and personnel,” Reardon said, noting concerns, like AFGE did, about stalled legislation. “The rule will make it more difficult for appropriations bills to be passed and diminishes the authority and expertise of appropriations and authorizing committees.”
 
The new Holman rule, Reardon noted, is only in place, so far, for calendar year 2017—and the majority party has called it a “pilot program.” 

Further, the “rules change is limited to the House,” as Reardon wrote in the letter.  “Many additional legislative actions, including conferencing with Senate-passed appropriations measures, are required before a bill becomes law.”

Many lawmakers also protested the Holman Rule

Reps. Don Beyer, Steny Hoyer, Gerry Connolly, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and John Delaney issued a statement against the Holman Rule.

“Today, the House of Representatives will consider a rules package that aims to further undermine civil service employee protections by stripping away necessary safeguards," the members wrote, in their letter earlier this week. "Reinstating the so-called 'Holman Rule' would allow any Member of Congress to simply offer an amendment that could reduce the salary of any federal employee, or eliminate a federal employee’s position without hearings, testimony, or due process."

"Federal employees work in every congressional district to provide vital services that help keep our nation healthy, safe, and strong, but with this rule House Republicans would instead treat these civil servants like political pawns and scapegoats," the lawmakers' letter continued. "We urge the GOP leadership to withdraw this harmful provision, and show support for the federal workforce.”

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