Is Congress really going to cut your pay to $1?
- By Adam Mazmanian
- Jan 10, 2017
Is Congress going to start leveraging the authority of a resurrected appropriations rule to target individual feds with pay cuts?
Plenty of people are saying it could happen, and part of the reason why is a recent Washington Post story with the red-siren headline, "House Republicans revive obscure rule that allows them to slash the pay of individual federal workers to $1."
The Holman Rule was adopted in the current House of Representatives rules package at the urging of Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), who wants to use it to target a $70 million program that supports the care of wild horses. The rule dates back to 1876 and was phased out in 1983.
It originated as a way for Democrats to defund the federal government's Reconstruction program in the southern states after the Civil War. It essentially offers a loophole for members who want to use spending bills to legislate. The rule allows for the addition of provisions and amendments to appropriations bills, provided they reduce spending, reduce the workforce or cut salaries.
So can Congress use the Holman Rule to cut a government employee's salary to $1?
Possibly, but it would take some doing. And it would be just as possible for Congress to use the rule to cut entire programs, departments, bureaus and agency functions.
"My guess is that the biggest concern shouldn't be among federal workers whose jobs might be targeted," said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose 1989 book, "Budget Reform Politics: The Design of the Appropriations Process in the House of Representatives," includes a deep dive into the formulation and early application of the Holman Rule.
"The potential power of the Holman Rule is that it can just abolish whole agencies by zeroing-out spending," Stewart told FCW in an email. "I've been thinking that the first target would be the set of federal agencies that Ronald Reagan tried to abolish, but was unsuccessful in, such as the Legal Services Corporation."
Potential is a key word here. Just because a provision or amendment is ruled in order does not mean it will wind up in a final bill and pass the House of Representatives. Such measures also must pass muster in the Senate, where 60 votes are required to close debate on spending bills.
"There's probably less danger from that rule than meets the eye," Sarah Binder, a Congress expert at the Brookings Institution, told FCW. "However, if decisions are being made by leadership in big, must-pass bills at midnight -- then yes, there is a danger," she said.
While it's a tricky business to go back through more than a century of appropriations bills to try to identify an individuals singled out for legislative pay cuts or termination under the Holman Rule, the parliamentary history publications, Cannon's Precedents and Deschler's Precedents, provide detail on how provisions and amendments proposed under the Holman Rule were adjudicated over the years.
The Holman Rule has supported targeted job cuts, salary reductions at boards and agencies, headcount caps at agencies and caps on daily pay for certain contracting activities. It even was used in support of a failed 1916 bid to trim the entire federal workforce by 10 percent and extend the working day for those that remained. It's not clear if the rule was ever used to cut a specific individual's salary to an intolerable level, to pressure that employee to leave government service.
An appropriations chair did rule in favor of a 1976 amendment to bar appropriated funds from being used to pay any Labor Department employee who proposes monetary fines against small farmers under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, if those violations are "neither willful, repeated, nor serious."
In that case, such determinations were up to the politically appointed OSHA administrator, who appears to have been the target of the provision. This application of the Holman Rule might be seen as putting a chill on a federal employee's performance of official duties, but in this instance the amendment was written to reinforce and underscore the existing standards for assessing such fines.
So if all that is in bounds, what's out? Spending reductions in provisions and amendments under Holman must be certain and not contingent on events or projections. Proceeds of the sale of government property typically can't be chalked up as savings under Holman. Additionally, the Holman rule does not permit appropriators to convey blanket authority to agency heads to fire civil servants.
A 1922 effort to get the Treasury to modernize its engraving equipment and eliminate 218 plate printing jobs was ruled out of order, until the legislative language was changed to unlink the acquisition of power printing presses and the job cuts.
A 1934 plan to index legislative salaries to wholesale commodity price levels was ruled out of order under Holman, because of the speculative nature of the Depression-era scheme.
A provision in a 1950 appropriations bill to give the secretary of State blanket authority to "terminate the employment of any officer or employee of the Department of State or of the Foreign Service of the United States whenever he shall deem such termination necessary or advisable in the interests of the United States," was judged to be outside the scope of the Holman Rule.
Would the new Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) be bound by the historical applications of the Holman Rule?
Donald Wolfensberger, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former chief of staff of the House Rules Committee, thinks so. "The same precedents will apply that applied at the time when the language was in effect," he told FCW.
Wolfensberger sees the Holman Rule as another way for rank and file members to go after programs and offices they deem to be wasteful, in the same way that limitation amendments are used to target spending on federal employee travel and conference attendance, and other kinds of expenditures. Wolfensberger doesn't see a big risk to individual feds, but he noted that, "if someone is on their high horse about an agency or employee," the Holman Rule could be used as an instrument to go after that target. "These things will pop up from time to time," he said.
Wolfensberger is worried that the revival of the Holman Rule will bog down the House in amendments to retrench spending, slowing the appropriations process.
"Limitations amendments already account for well over 50 percent of all the amendments offered on the floor," Wolfensberger said. "Add [Holman] to the dozens of limitation amendments already being offered, and you wonder if House will even complete action on five or six of the 12 appropriations bills this year," he said.
Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.
Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.
Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.