Los Angeles Times

House members can now target any civil servant. Will they?

- By Charles Tiefer Charles Tiefer is a professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law and was general counsel of the House of Representa­tives. This article was produced in partnershi­p with the Conversati­on.

The slim Republican majority in the House of Representa­tives recently voted to give itself a streamline­d way to fire civil servants and shut down federal programs it doesn’t like — outside the standard process of review and debate.

This method, known as the Holman rule, has been used in the past to push extreme political agendas through the political process without due considerat­ion for the public interest. And it’s likely to happen again.

The rule, named after a Democratic Indiana congressma­n who developed it in 1876, allows House members to transform the normal process of compiling appropriat­ion bills into weapons to fire government employees and shut down programs they don’t like.

Anything is ripe for cutting with the Holman rule, including environmen­tal protection agencies, human rights programs and programs for addressing sales of semiautoma­tic weapons.

Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.), during the House debate, attacked federal officials as “unelected bureaucrat­s, the true, real swamp creatures here in D.C.”

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

Normally, cuts to staff or programs would have to go through an extensive review process, either to restructur­e or abolish programs.

That process includes drafting of a full-scale bill, subcommitt­ee and full committee hearings and debates, testimony and evidence presented by the president’s administra­tion, press coverage of these steps and adjustment of Congress members’ positions in light of that coverage.

Then, votes are held on edits to the bill, known as markups, after which there is a separate committee vote on reporting out the bill to the full House, the drafting of committee report sections by supporters and opponents — and even more after that.

But Holman sidesteps that entire process.

It allows provisions for altering or abolishing programs to be made a part of appropriat­ion bills, as long as the provision putatively saves money. Under Holman, individual House members offer amendments during full House considerat­ion of a bill on the floor. As long as those amendments cut spending, they are considered proper.

For example, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 created a program to improve the technology infrastruc­ture of the Internal Revenue Service and to hire more auditors to focus on corporatio­ns and wealthy people. Estimates are that the program will cost $80 billion over a decade. Any proposed changes to that program in legislatio­n might well get bogged down in debate.

But under Holman, a critic of the program could just drop a change into the must-pass part of the appropriat­ions bill that contains spending for Treasury Department operations and kill or alter the program. No one could stop that from happening unless they chose to vote against the entire appropriat­ions bill, which funds that whole department of the government.

Similarly, the Environmen­tal Protection Agency proposes to strengthen regulation­s limiting the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. A House critic of the methane-control program could just pop into the appropriat­ions bill containing spending for the EPA a Holman provision that either cuts the salary of the program director to $1 or terminates the program altogether.

As Jacqueline Simon, public policy director of the American Federation of Government Employees, says, this reckless rule “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.”

The rule was abandoned in 1983, but the Republican­s brought it back in 2017. When Democrats took over the House in 2019, they again dropped it.

In one notable case in 2017, House Republican­s were angry about evaluation­s of proposed legislatio­n by the staff of the nonpartisa­n budget analysis division of the Congressio­nal Budget Office. So they used the Holman rule to try to abolish that division and move its employees to another part of that agency.

The vote to eliminate the division failed, but, significan­tly, the use of the rule was promoted by the Freedom Caucus, the same faction of the GOP advocating for using the rule now.

There are several scenarios in the current Congress when the Holman rule could come into play — with deeply problemati­c results. For instance, GOP leaders may need to unify their party to pass controvers­ial appropriat­ion bills. Allowing members on the extreme fringe to propose Holman amendments to cut or wipe out programs may be necessary to get their votes.

Should the House pass a spending bill with a Holman provision, that bill may not necessaril­y be blocked by the Senate. An attempt by the Senate Democratic majority to kill a House-passed provision would need 60 votes to move ahead. That would require votes from at least nine Republican senators, which may not be possible.

An appropriat­ions bill that contains Holman provisions would go to a conference committee, formed to reconcile difference­s in legislatio­n passed by both chambers. Senate Democrats might be forced to go along with objectiona­ble Holman provisions to get buy-in from all the House factions to pass the conference bill and avoid a government shutdown.

Which brings us full circle to where the Holman rule started — with the Southern Democrats trying to repeal Reconstruc­tion-era laws and get those changes past President Ulysses S. Grant.

If appropriat­ion bills loaded with awful Holman provisions reach his desk, would President Biden veto them?

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