Last week, the night before the opening of the 115th Congress, the nation was outraged by Republican house members’ attempt to dismantle the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. It was all the news, and for once people in both parties sat up, took notice, and complained loudly. Thus, by the end of the next day, that single rule had been rescinded. But that particular item overshadowed the rest of the legislation, and thus we did not notice other parts of the rules package that were not rescinded. Two in particular have come onto my radar, and I shall write of the second in a separate post. The first is the reinstatement of the Holman rule.
The Holman rule “empowers any member of Congress to propose amending an appropriations bill to single out a government employee or cut a specific program”. With the vote of a majority of the House and the Senate, the pay of an individual federal government employee could be reduced to $1 or a specific program eliminated. The rule originally targeted patronage jobs, particularly customs collectors, but the federal workforce shifted over time to a civil service insulated from politics. Terminations or pay cuts passed through the Holman rule would override any civil service, union, or other employment protections.
The Holman rule was originally developed in 1876, named after Indiana Congressman William Steele Holman who was known for being fiscally conservative, to say the least. Holman railed against government waste. One anecdote illustrates his frugality:
“In 1885, he went west on an inspection tour with other members of the Committee on Indian Affairs. Unlike the rest, he refused to go by sleeping car, because it would cost the government too much, and slept in his seat instead. When they reached Fort Yates, in Dakota Territory, he balked at paying five dollars for the steamer ride to Bismarck, pointing out that the post had army ambulances and mules. “The mules are not earning anything,” he argued. “They are idle; they will convey us.” And so they did, much to the annoyance of his fellow-traveler, Congressman Joseph Cannon of Illinois, who tipped the wagon-driver to run over every single stone in the road as a punishment. As he arrived at Fort Lincoln, the commander proposed that they fire a salute. “No! no! for God’s sake, don’t!” Cannon protested. “He will object to the useless waste of powder.”
In 1983, the Holman rule was suspended by Speaker of the House, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. Tip O’Neill was a humanitarian, and as President Bill Clinton said in his eulogy for O’Neill, “Tip O’Neill was the nation’s most prominent, powerful and loyal champion of working people… He loved politics and government because he saw that politics and government could make a difference in people’s lives. And he loved people most of all.”
The Holman rule clears a path for indiscriminate actions against individuals by self-serving members of congress. Even if a member of congress proposes to use the Holman rule, it still requires a majority of both House and Senate before it can be applied. However, that safeguard appears to be somewhat meaningless in light of today’s unified Republican rule.
The revival of the Holman Rule was the brainchild of Representative H. Morgan Griffith, a Republican (surprise!) from Virginia. When asked about the likelihood that the rule would be used indiscriminately, he replied, “I can’t tell you it won’t happen. The power is there. But isn’t that appropriate? Who runs this country, the people of the United States or the people on the people’s payroll?” Perchance he does not realize that he is one of the ‘people on the people’s payroll’, and that We The People seem to matter very little to our elected officials.
The re-establishment of the Holman rule puts last month’s request by the Trump transition team for names of individual Energy Department employees and contractors who worked on climate change issues in a whole new light. The request was seen as threatening from the outset, but now appears to be even more so. The following week, the team also requested a list of names of those within the State Department who had worked on gender equality issues. Though the Department of Energy refused to honour Trump’s request, I’m sure there are few, if any, hurdles to Congress obtaining the names. If nothing else, Trump could make a quick phone call to his friend, Putin, and request the Russian hacking team get the information he seeks. (Sorry, couldn’t resist)
Even a number of house Republicans attempted to block the revival of the Holman rule, including Barabara Comstock from Virginia, though in the end she voted for the package. Democrats voted unanimously against.
“This rules package provides [the Congressional Majority] with the surgical tools necessary to reach into the inner workings of the federal government and cut away each part and employee that runs afoul of their ideological agenda.” – Gerry Connolly , Democrat from Northern Virginia, home to many government workers.
“It undermines civil service protections; it goes back to the nineteenth century. Republicans have consistently made our hardworking federal employees scapegoats, in my opinion, for lack of performance of the federal government itself, and this rule change will enable them to make short-sighted and ideologically driven changes to our nation’s civil service.” – House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
In a number of posts over the course of the past year, I have followed the progress of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as he has manipulated the democracy of Turkey in order to gain a greater degree of executive control, transforming what was once a democracy into, effectively, an autocracy. I see the same thing happening here, only at an even more accelerated rate than in Turkey. There can no longer be any doubt that Trump and his minions in Congress plan to change the entire structure of our government, creating an environment where the citizens have no voice and no control. Will he be successful? That depends on us, my friends. Will we resist in every possible way, or will we sit back, much as the Germans and Italians did 80 years ago and “hope for the best”?