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Long: Holman Rule a potentially useful tool for Congress

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Newly elected Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., swears in members of the 118th Congress on Jan. 7 in Washington.

With the interminable drama of electing the Speaker of the House for the 118th Congress, there were a lot of policy negotiations and renegotiations going on behind the scenes in smoke-filled rooms. (Actually, do they still have smoke-filled rooms in D.C.?) Some of these are of particular interest here in southwest Virginia, involving a local congressman, Morgan Griffith of the 9th District.

(Full disclosure: Griffith is a longtime acquaintance and neighbor of mine, going back to before he went to Washington.)

“Congress is broken,” Griffith wrote in a press release last week. “It’s time to make it more efficient and productive.” Naturally, there are plenty of people who disagree with Griffith’s conservative politics or his stance on this or that issue. But who disputes this statement on face value?

In the negotiations to secure the speakership in a closely divided House for GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, Griffith and other conservative legislators advocated — in exchange for support — for several important procedural changes to House rules. Many of these were included in the updated “rules package” of the new Congress.

One reform backed by the Salem congressman was a “single purpose” rule for writing legislation. Instead of massive bills that cover a wide range of dissimilar topics, proposed legislation would address a single issue, making debate more streamlined and preventing congressmen from hiding pet projects in piles of paper.

Closely related is a new “germaneness” rule. Amendments to legislation can’t be irrelevant to the main purpose of the bill. Theoretically, this should prevent a bill funding disaster relief in one place from masking a pork barrel project several states away.

Also part of the rules package is a reintroduction of the venerable Holman Rule, for which Griffith has long been an outspoken advocate. The Holman Rule is an old congressional provision aimed at reducing the cost of government and preventing fiscal waste. The original idea was to control federal expenditures “by reduction of the number and salary of officers of the United States, by the reduction of compensation of any person paid out of the Treasury of the United States, or by the reduction of amounts of money covered by the [appropriations] bill.”

The Holman Rule isn’t some relic of the horse-drawn past. In fact, it was in effect for most of the 20th century — until 1983, when then-speaker Tip O’Neill quietly retired it. All those years it was a tool in Congress’s toolbox, albeit one that really was seldom used.

Nevertheless, Holman gives Congress an avenue to defund federal positions it deems superfluous or otherwise problematic. Career civil service workers tend to hate the idea, but it recognizes that bureaucrats are employed by the people, who elect Congress. For instance, if a consensus develops that the staff of the federal Office of Navel-Gazing is too large, the Appropriations Committee of Congress could vote to reduce the salaries of half the workers there to $1 a year.

Detractors fret that this authority could be abused and serve to politicize the civil service. I suppose that’s possible; but then any authority can be abused. A better way to look at the Holman Rule is that it’s a way for the legislative branch to reassert some much-needed oversight over the executive and the bureaucratic machinery of that branch. This isn’t inconsequential. Historically, and regardless of whichever political party was in power, executive agencies have tended to run roughshod over Congress. Presidents (of either party) bypass Congress with executive orders; federal agencies, never designated with legislative power by the Constitution, impose de facto law by way of regulatory pronouncements; Cabinet departments do what they will regardless of their original mandate. And Congress has too often gone along with it. But remember that the Constitution vests all — all — legislative power in Congress, and stipulates that every dollar spent by the federal government be approved by the House. The Holman Rule merely reflects these realities, and returns to Congress a method to assert these powers.

The Holman Rule was reinstated in 2017, largely due to Griffith’s advocacy, but was abolished again in 2019 when the Democrats took Congress. Now, with another change of majority party, it’s back. What Congress does with it, of course, remains to be seen.

Think of Holman as a scalpel, not a machete. Improperly wielded, a scalpel can do tremendous damage. Used appropriately, it can do tremendous good, and even restore the health of a body. But, of course, an unused scalpel never does any good at all. Here’s to Congress finding some skillful surgeons.

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