Tucked in the 115th Congress's House Rules package is a quintessential throwback measure that has unions leery of the future of federal employee jobs and salaries.

The Holman Rule is a 140-year-old measure that allows Congress to "retrench" agency spending by allowing amendments to appropriations bills affecting everything from federal employee salaries paid from the Treasury Department to the number of employees in an office.

The House Rules package was approved on Jan. 5, including the 19th-century appropriations measure.  

The Holman Rule was first introduced in 1876 and modified in 1911, but Congress used it sparingly in the 1930s to reduce the numbers of federal employees in specific agencies when it was deemed germane to proposed legislation.

The rule allows congressmen to apply a retrenchment amendment to any appropriation bill without seeking insight from the agencies they propose to cut from, sending an alarm through federal unions whose members could be affected.

American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox said in a statement that the reinstitution of the rule threatened the financial well-being of federal workers.

"Reviving this rule means lawmakers will be able to vote to cut the pay and jobs of individual workers or groups of workers without getting input from the agencies where these employees work," he said.

"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."

The Holman Rule will be in place for 2017 before being considered for reauthorization in the next House Rules package next year.

National Treasury Employees Union president Tony Reardon said in a statement that he wrote to House Republican leadership to express opposition to the Holman Rule's ease of application on important budget issues.

"In the letter, I said that funding for federal agencies and employees should be determined through the course of a deliberative process, and should not be at the mercy of political floor statements that only serve to destroy Congress’ inherent role to provide funding for the federal government’s operations and personnel," he said.

"The rule will make it more difficult for appropriations bills to be passed and diminishes the authority and expertise of appropriations and authorizing committees." According to the Government Publishing Office, any use of the rule requires that:

  • The retrenchment must be germane to the issue
  • It must retrench expenditures either by the number and salary of the officers of the United States, by the reduction of the compensation of any person paid out of the Treasury or by the reduction of amounts of money covered by the bill
  • The language the appropriation provision must be confined solely to the purpose of retrenching expenditures

The rule has been used a handful of times by Congress from proposing the abolish the jobs of 29 comptrollers and customs officials in the Port of New York in 1932 to the number of naval officers in the Nurse Corps in 1938 and has been dropped as a useful mechanism of the House Rules several times.

With the Trump administration’s proposed plan of a federal hiring freeze looming, the specificity under which the Holman Rule can be applied left little solace for Cox, who predicted dire consequences for agency operations.

"The so-called Holman Rule undermines civil service protections for the millions of working people who process our Social Security checks, safeguard our borders, support our military, research cures for deadly diseases and carry out programs and services that are vital to our nation."

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