Republican legislators take new powers over public spending

By on 10/01/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
The US House of Representatives

American Republicans have reinstated an obscure rule from 1876 that allows them to target specific government programmes and individual federal workers for cuts.

The Holman Rule, which was scrapped by a Democrat-majority House in 1983, empowers members of Congress to reach into departmental budgets and require specific spending reductions, cut individual positions, or slash the pay of individuals to as little as $1.

Previously, Congress was only capable of shaping the overall budget of government agencies, whilst officials and appointed political leaders retained control of how agencies spent those budgets.

Republican leaders say the changes will increase accountability in the federal government. The idea to revive the Holman Rule has been credited to Morgan Griffith, the Republican representative of Virginia, where Griffith told listeners of a local radio show that the new process would give power back to Congress.

“If we have wasteful spending out there, if we have agencies with too many employees sitting around playing tiddlywinks, then we have an opportunity to go in there and say, you know what, the ‘x’ division of the ‘y’ agency needs to shrink,” he said.

Democrats and federal employee unions have criticised the measure, which allows amendments to appropriation bills, without input from government agencies, as long as they are approved by a majority of the House and the Senate.

The House Democratic whip, Steny Hoyer, said the rule undermines civil service protections and strips away necessary safeguards.

“Republicans have consistently made our hardworking federal employees scapegoats, in my opinion, for lack of performance of the federal government itself,” he said. “And this rule change will enable them to make short-sighted and ideologically driven changes to our nation’s civil service.”

The changes follow reports that Donald Trump’s transition team asked the Department of Energy to identify the specific employees who worked on the Paris climate accord.

J. David Cox, the national president of AFGE, the largest federal employee union representing 670,000 workers, said in a statement: “The jobs and paychecks of career federal workers should not be subject to the whims of elected politicians. The Holman Rule will not only harm our hardworking federal workforce, but jeopardize the critical governmental services upon which the American people rely.”

Last week House Republicans also voted to place the independent ethics oversight body, the Office of Congressional Ethics, under the authority of the House Ethics Committee, which has a Republican chair. But they were forced to retreat following a public outcry and a disapproving tweet from president-elect Donald Trump.

The Holman Rule, which was part of a sweep of new rules for the 115th Congress, was originally named after US representative William Holman, a fierce opponent of government spending.

Donald Kettl, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, told Global Government Forum that there are a number of proposals on the table designed to fundamentally rethink the protections enjoyed by federal employees. One plan would make it easier to fire staff without cause, while another would force a 15% reduction of the civilian workforce over the next four years.

“It’s very difficult to predict how much traction these plans will get. But it’s impossible to escape the fact that the pay, protection, and number of federal workforce are under far more scrutiny than at any time in recent memory,” he said.

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See also:

Federal CFOs warn presidential transition may disrupt reform plans

Senior Republicans prepare to squeeze civil servants’ benefits and protections

War of words breaks out over plans to make it easier to fire U.S. civil servants

Canadian unions fight new PM Trudeau on employment reforms


About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

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