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Tough sledding for proposal targeting Trump investigator

‘Holman rule’ has been used sporadically, with little success; special counsel may be immune

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene applauds during Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint meeting of Congress on July 19.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene applauds during Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint meeting of Congress on July 19. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

With government funding bills in focus when the House returns after Labor Day, Republicans in that chamber are seeking opportunities to use a newly revived appropriations rule that effectively gives lawmakers the power to fire federal officials at will.

Last week, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., announced that she would introduce such an amendment under the so-called Holman rule to block federal funding for special counsel John L. “Jack” Smith’s investigation into former President Donald Trump.

The broad form of the Holman rule, as reinstated by Republicans earlier this year, allows any member to offer a legislative amendment to an appropriations bill if it would result in a reduction in the amount of money covered by the bill, a reduction to a specific government official’s compensation paid out of Treasury or a reduction in the number of officials employed by the government.  

The rule has been described by some Republican members as an important oversight tool. It’s the “ultimate move to drain the swamp,” Florida Republican Kat Cammack said during debate on the rules package for the 118th Congress, which reinstated the rule.

Some Democrats, on the other hand, have characterized the Holman rule as a threat to the federal workforce. “It undermines civil service protections,” then-Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said in opposition to the rule’s expansion in 2017. “This rules change will enable [Republicans] to make shortsighted and ideologically driven changes to our nation’s civil service.”

Checkered history

The Holman rule was first adopted in 1876 at the request of Rep. William Holman, D-Ind., a fierce critic of federal spending.

At the time, House rules allowed members to propose legislative amendments to appropriations bills to increase the salaries of federal officials, but similar amendments that proposed reductions in salaries were considered legislative matters that changed existing law and thus were not germane to the appropriations process.

The House agreed that there should be an exception to the general prohibition against legislating on an appropriations bill as long as the legislation would result in a “retrenchment,” or a reduction in funds covered by the bill.

Since its inception, the Holman rule has been killed and resurrected in varying forms. Its modern usage has largely been unremarkable because of a 1983 amendment to the rule that narrowed its scope to exclude legislative amendments that would eliminate or reduce the compensation of federal officials.

That changed in the 115th Congress, when the Republican majority adopted a special order construing the rule more broadly to include amendments that would effectively eliminate government positions and salaries. Democrats removed the special order for the 116th and 117th Congresses, but Republicans revived it for the 118th Congress.

[House GOP renews ‘Holman rule’ targeting federal pay]

Even under its expanded form, however, the Holman rule isn’t a silver bullet that members can use to oust officials they don’t like, such as Smith. In fact, Greene’s proposal is unlikely to succeed because the special counsel’s office isn’t funded through annual appropriations like most federal offices; rather, it’s financed through permanent indefinite appropriations under a 1987 law.

That means cutting Smith’s salary as a Holman rule amendment to the fiscal 2024 Commerce-Justice-Science bill, if offered, would almost certainly be considered out of order by the House parliamentarian if any member objects to its consideration.

According to the Congressional Research Service, such an amendment would violate one of the core elements of the Holman rule: that the amendment must retrench funds that the bill actually appropriates. “To be in order, the legislative language in question must be both germane to other provisions in the measure and must produce a clear reduction of appropriations in that bill,” a recent CRS report states.

Smith’s office would be insulated even in the event of a partial government shutdown, which could effectively shutter much of the Justice Department. In a prolonged shutdown scenario, ongoing proceedings against Trump could be slowed down because of dwindling judicial branch funds, but Smith’s office would still receive payments from the Treasury for salaries and expenses.

Because Smith receives funds outside of general appropriations, legislation separate from the appropriations process would be required to defund his office. Last month, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz introduced such a bill, which would prohibit any funds authorized or appropriated under federal law, or held within any federal trust fund, to be expended for Smith’s office.

Previous attempts

Smith isn’t the first proposed target of a Holman rule amendment since Republicans took control of the House in January.

During debate on the rules package earlier this year, South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan called for the use of the expanded Holman rule to eliminate the salary of former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci.

“If ever there was a time for this House to stop paying the salaries of bad bureaucrats, it is now,” Duncan said. “Tony Fauci deserves that step.”

Last month, Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert, a Freedom Caucus member, offered a Holman rule amendment to the fiscal 2024 Agriculture appropriations bill that would reduce the salary of Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary of the Food and Nutrition Service of the Agriculture Department, to $1. Conservatives have criticized Dean for helping to orchestrate a food stamp benefit increase they argue overstepped USDA’s authority.

Boebert told the Washington Examiner last month that she plans to offer similar amendments targeting Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III.

Another Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., offered amendments to the Agriculture spending bill that would reduce the salaries of seven senior Food and Drug Administration officials who head various offices within the agency, including its divisions on epidemiology, risk management and medical policy, among others.

GOP leaders ultimately yanked the Agriculture spending bill from floor consideration just before the August recess, partly because of a dispute with Freedom Caucus members over what amendments would be allowed.

Such tactics have been used to target political opponents in the past, without success.

In 2018, an amendment offered by Arizona Republican Andy Biggs to the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending package, which came to the floor in the middle of the fiscal year following five stopgap funding measures, would have blocked funds appropriated under the bill for special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s salary and expenses. The amendment ultimately died in the House Rules Committee, although it likely would have been considered out of order if brought to the floor.

Later that year, the House rejected an amendment offered by Arizona Republican Paul Gosar to the fiscal 2019 Energy-Water bill that would have reduced the salary of Mark Gabriel, the Western Area Power administrator, to just $1. Ninety Republicans voted against the amendment, which was defeated 139-276.

In 2017, the House overwhelmingly defeated a Holman rule amendment offered by Republican Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia to a fiscal 2018 spending package including Legislative Branch funding that would have cut one-third of the Congressional Budget Office’s staff. That amendment drew opposition from 116 Republicans and was defeated on a 116-309 vote.

Also in 2017, a then-Daytona Beach, Fla.-area GOP lawmaker tried offering several Holman rule amendments to a separate fiscal 2018 spending bill.

One amendment offered by Ron DeSantis, the former lawmaker and current Florida governor and presidential candidate, would have protected the continued operations of his former workplace, the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. His amendment would have defunded the offices of the special envoy for Guantánamo detention closure and the principal director for detainee policy.

Another amendment DeSantis offered would have eliminated the salary for the director of civil works of the Army Corps of Engineers, which he described as a “duplicative office.” Both amendments were made in order by the Rules Committee, clearing a critical first hurdle, but DeSantis ended up offering neither amendment on the floor.

Even some Democrats have embraced the Holman rule and used it to take jabs at Republican officials.

In 2017, California Rep. Jared Huffman offered two amendments to the fiscal 2018 Interior-Environment spending bill that would have prohibited funds under the bill to pay the salaries of Trump administration officials Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka.

In 2018, New Jersey Democrat Bill Pascrell Jr. proposed an amendment to the fiscal 2019 Interior-Environment bill that would have slashed the salary of Scott Garrett, then a Securities and Exchange Commission official and former Republican congressman from New Jersey.

The Rules Committee blocked consideration of those amendments.

Despite eagerness among some House Republicans to use the Holman rule, Biden administration officials are likely to be safe from layoffs for the remainder of the 118th Congress. 

Even if such amendments were made in order by the Rules Committee and ultimately adopted by the House, the provisions would almost certainly be nonstarters in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

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