The Holman Rule, Federal Budget, and a Government Shutdown

The Holman Rule is being used as a threat to cut salaries of government officials. Should federal employees be worried?

The political divisions among Americans are reaching a fever pitch. Allegations of the Biden administration using the Department of Justice and the legal system to impact an election and eliminate political opponents are now familiar.

On the other side, many Democrats are convinced that former President Trump is a crook and deserves to be in jail even though he is still supported by a majority of Republicans, at least in part because of the indictments against him.

Illegal immigration is another hot button. Millions of people are walking across our southern border. Sanctuary cities such as New York are complaining about the flood of immigrants despite the numbers being small compared to what continues to happen in some border states. Very few jurisdictions are happy with the situation.

With this background, it is not surprising these political divisions are front and center in budget negotiations. The vast gulf between the two parties makes reaching an agreement difficult.

Facing the possibility of a shutdown due to an interpretation in 1980 of an old statute, we now experience the possibility of a government shutdown every year.

In this political climate, it is unsurprising some federal officials will be targeted in Congress. That is happening now.

Targeting Federal Officials Through Appropriations

A group of Republican lawmakers want to eliminate a salary for the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The move is a way to personally impact him because of how he has handled illegal immigration and the flood of immigrants now entering the United States.

Congressman Claudia Tenney (R-NY) issued this statement:

Secretary Mayorkas should not be paid hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to continually fail to protect American taxpayers from threats crossing our borders. Thanks to Secretary Mayorkas’s work, or lack thereof, there have been at least 5.8 million illegal crossings of our southern border since Biden took office, turning all our communities into border communities. If the president is refusing to fire him for his dereliction of duty, his salary must reflect his failures.

This was also echoed by Congressman Chip Roy (R-TX) who said:

It’s time to end this border crisis once and for all. The American people have no obligation to keep paying a federal official who refuses to do his job and uphold his oath, and that’s why we should zero out Mayorkas’ salary. I’m glad to work with Rep. Tenney in this fight to regain operational control of the border.

What is the Holman Rule?

So how do these lawmakers hope to do this? They want to use the Holman Rule.

It is a way to reduce spending by cutting the number and salaries of federal officials. It could also be used to reduce the compensation of any person paid out of Treasury funds and to reduce the amount of money spent through an appropriations bill. This could theoretically apply to civilian federal employees as well.

The Holman rule was first implemented in 1876. Its purpose was to reduce spending by the federal government.

Congressman William S. Holman was an Indiana Democrat in the 19th century. He served in 16 Congresses when a career in Congress was still uncommon.

Perhaps his impact has been greater than most Congressmen who served in that era because of the “Holman Rule.” While the Holman Rule was used in Congress for decades, it was eliminated in 1983. In 2017, the House reinstated the rule, although it was not used. It was reinstated in January 2023.

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, or a specific federal program could be eliminated.

The rule is an exception to the prohibition against provisions in appropriations legislation that change existing law. Before the rule’s reinstatement this year, cuts could be made to agencies, not specific programs or employees.

Any discussion of the Holman Rule generates a strong reaction. It is a way to strike fear in the federal bureaucracy because there is concern about its potential use rather than how it has been used.

For instance, Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA), a lawmaker who represents a district that is home to many federal employees, said of the Holman Rule in the past, “This archaic tool, also known as the Armageddon Rule, is nothing more than a backdoor way for Republicans to dismantle the federal workforce and carry out political vendettas at the expense of career civil servants.”

While the rule could potentially target any government official, some officials are more likely targets in the current political environment. Those working on controversial issues like climate change, immigration, or health care will most likely be impacted. Additionally, those who have testified against or criticized the administration or its policies could face retaliation through the Holman Rule.

How Much of a Threat is the Holman Rule to the Federal Workforce?

While we can anticipate verbal bombs being thrown by those who would like to see the rule used to reduce government spending and by those who prefer a larger government and do not like possible spending reductions, it is unlikely to have much of an impact.

The Holman Rule is one way that Congress could cut government spending by eliminating spending on specific programs or even for specific employees. It probably has not been as effective in the past as some have feared it would be because it still requires agreement between the House and the Senate, but it does eliminate other obstacles.

It has been used successfully in the past but not in recent decades. In 1932, it was used to eliminate 29 Customs positions. It was used to eliminate eight more Customs positions in 1939. It also allowed a 1952 amendment that did not allow filling vacancies in independent agencies until an agency’s workforce was reduced by 10%.

The government survived and thrived in the 147 years since the Holman Rule was introduced. The government is likely to continue to survice with little real impact on the new budget that may eventually be passed.

Realistically, there is a greater likelihood of a government shutdown of at least a short duration than the possibility of senior government officials losing a paycheck due to the Holman Rule.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47