US House Republicans vote to make it easier to fire individual federal officials and cut pay

By on 11/01/2023 | Updated on 12/01/2023
Kevin McCarthy became House speaker on Saturday after a 15-vote battle. Photo by Matt Johnson, Right Cheer via Flickr

Republicans in the House of Representatives have resurrected the ‘Holman Rule’, allowing lawmakers to use spending bills to abolish federal agencies, defund specific government programmes and fire individual civil servants or reduce their pay.

Democrats have decried the move, calling it archaic and a reversion to the Trump administration’s “war on the federal workforce”.

In the vote on Monday, House Republicans also agreed to only consider spending bills for fiscal 2024 that would cut domestic agency funding across the board by more than 20%, sparking concerns of a government shutdown when the current funding period ends in the autumn.

The package of rules was passed after the GOP took charge of the House following the mid-term elections in November last year. Much of it centres on the Republican Party’s goal of limiting spending. “It reflects Republican priorities and the priorities of the voters who elected us,” representative Tom Cole, republican of Oklahoma and the chairman of the Rules Committee said.

Attempt to ‘dismantle the federal workforce’

The Holman Rule dates back to the late 19th century. It was revived in 2017 having been dormant since 1983, before being scrapped again when Democrats took control of the House in 2019.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, Republicans sought to use the provision to target employees at the Congressional Budget Office, the State Department and the Defense Department but none of the amendments were adopted.

House lawmakers have suggested they would use the authority to curb agencies like the FBI or to cut funding for certain federal investigations. According to Government Executive, personnel who have drawn the ire of the Republican caucus, such as Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, could also be in the firing line under the reinstated provision.  

Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service and others argue that the rule could be damaging even if provisions made under it are blocked by the Democrat-controlled Senate.

“It’s the potential use that makes it so concerning,” Stier told the Washington Post. “If you’re a federal employee, this now becomes a risk that you have to think ‘I may get myself in hot water or have my salary dropped to zero or my job could get axed’” when making a professional decision.

“Symbols can cause harm. We need a workforce that is committed to the public good and feels safe to make that choice. That’s what’s at risk here,” he said.

Democrat representative Gerry Connolly said the rule is “nothing more than a backdoor way for MAGA Republicans to dismantle the federal workforce and carry out political vendettas at the expense of career civil servants. House Democrats will stand up for our brave, professional and experienced federal employees and oppose GOP efforts to throw us back into a patronage system”.

Read more: Republican lawmakers propose stripping US federal officials of employment protections

The development follows an executive order signed by Trump in October 2020 which sought to move federal workers in policy-oriented roles to a new employment category called Schedule F. Those who fell under this category would effectively be ‘at-will’ employees, meaning they could be disciplined or fired without due process and could not engage in collective bargaining. It also meant that new hires could be brought in without going through the civil service’s normal merit-based selection processes.

This was revoked under Biden, and the then-Democrat controlled House passed the Preventing a Patronage System bill in September in a bid to prevent Schedule F being resurrected by a future Republican government, following reports that Trump allies were compiling lists of officials to fire should he be re-elected in 2024.  

Agency budget cuts on the cards

House Republicans also voted on Monday to approve the Family and Small Business Taxpayer Protection Act, rescinding US$71bn in extra funding for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The 10-year cash injection was part of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act passed last year and aims to boost enforcement and customer service efforts.

Republicans have argued that the additional funding would be used to increase tax scrutiny on small businesses and middle-income Americans, despite the law restricting enforcement efforts to high earners. The Republican’s claim has been rejected by former IRS commissioner Charles Rettig.

According to HuffPost, before the additional funding was allocated, the IRS budget was 30% lower than it had been a decade ago. Rettig testified last year that the agency would need to hire 52,000 people over the next six years to replace retiring workers, and the agency previously estimated that 87,000 additional staff would be needed over the next 10 years.

The Congressional Budget Office said that if the Family and Small Business Taxpayer Protection Act became law, it would save US$71bn upfront, but cause the government to miss out on US$185bn in uncollected tax revenue for a net loss of US$114bn over a decade.

The bill is not expected to pass in the Senate.

Package particulars

The agreement to only consider spending bills for fiscal 2024 that would cut domestic agency funding across the board by more than 20% was a concession made by Kevin McCarthy in a bid to win over defectors within the party and secure his bid to become house speaker. He was elected on Saturday after a 15-vote battle.

The agreement is not formally part of the package of rules that will govern the House over the next two years. As well as the Holman Rule, other measures in the package include making it harder for the federal government to raise taxes and easier for Republicans to remove their own speaker and to establish new investigatory committees.

Another part of the package, which aligns with the Holman Rule, suggests that agencies set oversight plans that “may make recommendations to consolidate or terminate duplicative or unnecessary programmes and agencies”.

Read more: Role reversal: Biden rolls back Trump’s civil service directives

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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