As part of its broader package of rules for the 115th Congress, the House of Representatives revived the Holman Rule, a provision that allows House members to propose amendments to spending bills that closely manage federal agencies. These "retrenchment" amendments can affect details down to individual federal salaries and the number of staff in an office.
This rule allows Congress not only to eliminate entire programs (although it can do this already) but also to reassign or eliminate federal employees, individually or in groups.
News that the Holman Rule was to be revived was greeted with pearl-clutching panic by such left-liberal news organizatons as the Washington Post, which colorfully opined that the move "threatens to upend the 130-year-old civil service." Others even asserted that Congress firing a federal employee would amount to an unconstitutional bill of attainder.
This is ridiculous. The restoration of the Holman Rule means merely that when it comes to firing a federal employee, the president's signature on an act of Congress can do it. It doesn't seem extraordinary that the heads of the federal government should be able to dismiss their staff. Up to now, firing even the worst federal bureaucrat has been very, very difficult, so difficult that voters no longer control the agencies they employ and that govern their lives.
Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., whose idea it was to bring back the rule, put it succinctly when he asked, "Who runs this country, the people of the United States or the people on the people's payroll?"
Given that the rule requires an act of Congress, it will be invoked only to deal with the most egregious cases. But there is an abundance of cases in which the bureaucracy and arbitrators cover up for their colleagues.
Take Elizabeth Rivera of Puerto Rico, for example, who was restored to her job at the Department of Veterans Affairs after pleading guilty to involvement in an armed robbery. Her union not only thwarted managers' attempts to fire her, but even successfully won back pay for the period when she had been off the job. As part of its argument for her reinstatement, officials of the American Federation of Government Employees pointed out that her manager at the agency is also a convicted sex offender.
Of course, federal employees don't have to go so far as to participate in violent or sexual crimes to diminish the reputation of the government. Internal Revenue Service employees who deleted Lois Lerner's emails when they were under congressional subpoena were not fired. Aside from a few scapegoats, the VA employees who systematically manipulated the agency's computer system at more than 100 facilities, harming veterans to win themselves performance bonuses, were not fired. Two VA managers who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from their agency could not be fired. Nor could many of those implicated in the notorious scandal involving a General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas in 2010.
Bad-penny federal employees are nothing new. But the multiplicity of recent examples helps demonstrate the larger point. The civil service is superior to the spoils system, by which top-to-bottom political hires once dominated the federal government in the 19th century. But there is a balance between the benefits and drawbacks of civil service protections, and at the moment the scales have tipped too far in one direction. It's time someone helped federal employees by instilling in them the same healthy fear of losing their job that everyone in the private sector experiences.
The Holman Rule or something like it is needed to restore public confidence, both in government and in the civil service. We hope Congress does not hesitate to exercise this power. It will send a clear message to those abusing a near-absolute protection that federal employment was never meant to confer.