Maybe the Holman rule should be renamed the ‘No man rule’

A very old congressional procedure known as the Holman Rule has popped up lately. It allows a House member to amend an appropriations bill to eliminate a specific program or defund the salaries of those working on it. In the 19th century it was designed to rein in patronage. To discuss, Federal Drive with Tom Temin was joined by Bob Tobias, a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University, who says it makes no sense any more.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
So Bob, instead of the Holman rule, you would have that “no man rule?”

Bob Tobias
Yes, right. I would have the “no man rule.” Tom, the general House of Representatives rule, governing the appropriations process is that the appropriations legislation may not change existing law. So the Holman Rule is an exception to that general rule. And it allows a change in existing law to eliminate specific federal employee jobs, or to cut a federal employee salary to $1, in order to incentivize them to quit. So in effect it allows Congress, through the appropriations process, to manage the federal workforce. And not through changing existing law. And I think Congress should stick to the general rule of separating executive branch funding of existing laws, through the appropriations process from its process for considering new laws, where new laws get hearings, there’s public debate and whether it should be adopted or it should not be adopted. None of which happens when the Holman rule is used.

And as you suggest, it’s an old rule, it was originally enacted in 1876. And then it was used in 1932, to eliminate 29 Customs positions. And then another eight in 1939. And its most drastic implementation was in 1952, to disallow the filling of vacancies and independent agencies, until the agency’s workforce had been reduced by 10%. So it was in, it was out, it was in, it was out. And then most recently, in the 2017 to 2019 Congress, it was put back into effect. And there were several proposals, none of which were implemented. But there were proposals that received very widespread publicity. For example, the elimination of 89 jobs at the Congressional Budget Office, the elimination of federal employees working on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base policy, the elimination of the position of a single employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And a proposal to cut the salary to $1, of the Western Area Power Administrator to force him to leave. Now, as I say, the proposals were not enacted. But what it did do is spread fear among the federal workforce. Am I next? Am I going to be subject to that kind of a political attack?

Tom Temin
It’s worth noting that this seems to have been used by both Republicans and Democrats over the decades. If something happened in 1952, I don’t know whether it was Republican or Democratic House at that point. But it seems like both parties, at least parties using this during both Republican and Democratic presidencies.

Bob Tobias
Most recently it’s been used by Republicans. It was used by Republicans in the 2017 through 2019 period, rescinded in 2020. And then reinstated last week.

Tom Temin
We are speaking with Bob Tobias, a professor in the key Executive Leadership Program at American University. Well, there’s another rule we should probably talk about, actually a law, not a rule. And that is the Pendleton Act of 1883. Actually a generation later than the Holman Rule, to ensure merit based selection and so on. I guess that was the precursor to what we have as the modern civil service.

Bob Tobias
That’s exactly right, Tom. The Pendleton Act was enacted in 1883, to actually insulate federal employees from the political process. And its goal was to ensure the merit based selection and ultimately merit based evaluations, promotions, downgrades and discharges. So the idea is to separate the career civil service from the Congressional political process. Now I think that the Holman Rule may, ultimately, not withstand a legal challenge, because of its intervention in executive branch responsibility for implementing legislation. I think it should be abandoned. I think it should be abandoned, because we need federal employees fully engaged with their work free from the fear of a political attack.

Tom Temin
Right, because it seems like the rule has been applied both to programs and to individuals. And individuals should be subjected to the disciplinary action, if required, of the executive branch, you’re saying. And if someone is incompetent or they’re not carrying out policy, then they should be gone. But that’s not the Congress’ decision.

Bob Tobias
Nor responsibility.

Tom Temin
Right. It’s not their constitutional responsibility, you’re saying.

Bob Tobias
That’s exactly correct. So funding the executive branch through the appropriations without the Holman Rule exception maintains its role of creating public policy through new legislation. And allows the executive branch to perform its role of implementing existing public policy. Federal employees should be insulated from the political process, they will then be free of the fear burden: Am I next?

Tom Temin
Because as a practical matter, Congress does have the responsibility and authority to say end the program. And that might result in specific people being on that program. But that should be you’re saying, legislation to say, we don’t want this program anymore and we won’t fund this program anymore. And then whatever personnel actions ensue from that happen in the course of what is proper legislation to fund or not to fund a specific program?

Bob Tobias
That’s exactly right, Tom. If you’re eliminating a program through the normal political process, there are hearings, there’s public debate, there are editorials and so forth. But legislation in the context of the appropriations process is not debated. It’s usually an 1,800 page bill. It’s tucked away, it is not debated, people don’t have an opportunity to comment on it. And I think that’s the wrong approach.

Tom Temin
Yeah, the only people that know what’s in a bill are the people that made sure it got in there. And even though the rest of the population may have no idea. That’s the problem with these 18, well, the [National Defense Authorization Act] was 5,000 pages, and so on.

Bob Tobias
Correct. The people who put it in know about it, and scholars who have read about it 10 years later know about it. But other members of Congress don’t know about it either.

Tom Temin
And I don’t know anything about the Western Area Power Administrator who Congress tried to cut the salary to $1. But I suppose you could have, say, someone that’s working in the public service, and they’re wealthy already and they just liked the job. They could say, alright, I’ll do it for $1. And you can take the rest of it into your corncob pipe and smoke it.

Bob Tobias
Well, maybe so, Tom. But it shouldn’t be by act of Congress that tries to get around the protections of merit to achieve a political end.

Tom Temin
And Bob, let me just ask you this. In your encounters and daily discussions with federal employees, in the course of the work at American University, is this something they’re aware of that they think about?

Bob Tobias
It is, they read the newspapers, they read the federal news articles, they read other articles in newspapers about the Holman Rule. And it puzzles them, about how their jobs might be eliminated, how they might be reduced to $1. Without normal legislation, it concerns them.

Tom Temin
Yeah, it’s coffee discussion in reality.

Bob Tobias
Exactly. What’s this about? Why should this happen to me?

 

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories

    US Congress Budget

    House Republicans introduce plans to revive ‘Holman rule’ in Congress

    Read more
    cost-of-living adjustments

    House Republicans just brought back the Holman Rule for another year

    Read more