What is the Holman Rule and What Does it Mean for America?

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Hello and welcome to Day in Washington, your disability policy podcast. I’m your host Day Al-Mohamed working to make sure you stay informed.

In early January, the House of Representatives passed a package of changes to their standing rules. These changes would supposedly “enhance the House’s ability to exercise its ‘power of the purse’.” (Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-VA)). Adoption of procedural rules is pretty normal for any new congress.  However, House Resolution 5, which in addition to attempting to move the Office of Congressional Ethics under more direct Congressional control (and which received significant amounts of public outcry), there was also another provision that’s received some media coverage in Washington, but didn’t quite capture the same level of attention. The Holman Rule.

Holman Rule, A man crossing out images of men and women symbolsThe final version of House Resolution 5 includes the reinstatement of a very old Rule from 1876, called the Holman Rule. Let me start with some background. Congress tends to work along two tracks: authorizing and appropriating. Authorizing legislation is what we usually think of when we say legislation or bills. Congress members vote on language that authorizes specific events, agencies, projects etc. The second track, which most people might not realize is quite so separate is appropriations legislation which is where congress members vote on what to fund and how much to fund it.

The Holman Rule is specific to the appropriations track. It allows lawmakers to bring an amendment to an appropriations bill directly to the House floor that “retrenches” (meaning reduces) expenditures by:

  • the reduction of amounts of money in the bill;
  • the reduction of the number and salary of the officers of the United States; or
  • the reduction of the compensation of any person paid out of the Treasury of the United States.

At its core, it would seem the rule is to address saving money and (from a historical perspective) was used to help get rid of corrupt customs officials. Let me give an example of this. In the 1932 Treasury and Post Office Departments appropriations, there was a provision that said:

The offices of comptrollers of customs, surveyors of customs, and appraisers of merchandise (except the appraiser of merchandise at the port of New York), 29 in all, with annual salaries aggregating $153,800, are hereby abolished. The duties imposed by law and regulation upon comptrollers, surveyors, and appraisers of customs, their assistants and deputies (except the appraiser, his assistants and deputies at the port of New York) are hereby transferred to, imposed upon, and continued in positions, now established in the Customs Service by or pursuant to law, as the Secretary of the Treasury by appropriate regulation shall specify. . . .

So now that you have an idea of how it works, let’s look at how things can get complicated.

The goal of the rule is to take care of bloated expenditures and to ensure that the executive branch can address “poor actors” when it comes to agencies. This is about accountability and it allows any rank and file member to focus on specific programs and offices they deem to be wasteful.

An example cited by the Washington Examiner (and if anyone has an example given by a legislator who voted for the amendment I’d prefer that), is the story of Elizabeth Rivera of Puerto Rico. She worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs. After pleading guilty to involvement in an armed robbery she was able to get her job back with the agency and win back pay for the period when she had been off the job.  I have to admit, I think that would be great use of the Holman Rule.

But does it also risk skewing the executive branch of government and its agencies more and more towards the political? Is there a risk of members targeting agencies or offices with missions they disagree with?

A very clear example of how this can be detrimental already exists. Some of you may remember the House Un-American Activities Committee. In February 1943, the Democratic chairman of HUAC, accused 39 government employees of “subversive” activities. He called them “irresponsible, unrepresentative, crackpot, radical bureaucrats” and passed an amendment to defund their salaries. It eventually became part of the Urgent Deficiency Appropriation Act of 1943.

Three government employees filed suit. They were successful in the lower courts, but the government appealed it all the way to the Supreme Court.  The Court ruled unanimously in favor of the employees finding that the provision was an unconstitutional “bill of pains and penalties” (forbidden under the Bill of Attainder Clause of Article One of the Constitution).

Currently, leadership in an agency is held in appointed positions such as Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries, but much of the detail-oriented day-to-day work is done by career staff. These are individuals with many years of experience, expertise, and knowledge not just of the intricacies of legislation and regulations but how these systems interact with people’s lives on the ground.

If there is the potential or risk of eliminating, limiting, or altering, individual people and whole agencies, there is a risk of losing the long-term expertise and systems knowledge of career staff and potentially replacing them with ideologues. One of the strengths of the Executive Branch, I would argue, is the general non-partisanship of career employees in their work. That is what helps the government to continue steadily forward regardless of which party is in leadership.

While there is definitely a need to examine government spending, agency implementation, and ensure accountability, the question arises as to whether the Holman Rule is the most appropriate tool. It does allow for very specific reductions in spending but at what cost? Does it leave the Executive Branch of government too vulnerable to party politics?

As always, I encourage you read more about this for yourself and come to your own conclusions. Resources and links are in the comments.

This is Day Al-Mohamed, hoping you continue to be well, and be informed.


Day in Washington is a product of the Lead On Network. Comments and opinions expressed in this podcast should in no way be considered representative of opinions, statements or policies of any organizations, affiliations, employers or agencies connected with the host. Audio production provided by Chris Wright.  Music is “If by Force” courtesy of the Podsafe Music Network and Twenty  Twelve Records.

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