On their first session of the new year, House Republicans brought back a rule written three years before the invention of the lightbulb that would allow Congress to target specific federal workers and programs. 

President-elect Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. House Republicans on Jan. 3 passed a punitive rule that could hurt federal workers.

By bringing back the so-called Holman Rule Jan. 3, congressional Republicans threaten to overturn the more-than 120-year old civil service system that was created to prevent corruption in the federal government.

By passing the rule --which was first reported by the Washington Post -- any member of Congress can propose amendments to the annual budget bill removing nearly anything they want: entire programs, a class of workers, even reducing the salary of an specific federal worker to $1 a year.

“This is most likely the tip of the iceberg,” said IBEW Government Employees Department Director Dennis Phelps. “And I think it is worth reminding people that attacks on public workers’ rights have always led to watering down the power of workers in the private sector.”

With the Holman Rule in now in effect, a simple majority in the House and Senate can attach an amendment reducing any part of the nearly $1 trillion budget bill by any amount. There is no allowance for hearings on the reasoning or impact of any amendment and the only way to stop an amendment that, for example, targeted an individual federal worker’s salary would be to stop the entire bill, which could shut down the entire federal government.

Phelps said nearly 40,000 IBEW members could be affected by the rule; there are 2.7 million federal workers in every state and territory.

The potential for political intimidation is limitless, he said.

“It is terrible,” Phelps said. “They could target the stewards. They could target the business managers. They could cut the salaries of inconvenient whistleblowers to a $1 a year. All it would take is for an OSHA investigator to be a thorn in the side of a major employer and don’t you think the CEO would call up their member of Congress to get that job cut? We would be crazy to think that it won’t happen.”

According to the Post, the rule was reintroduced by Virginia Republican Rep. H. Morgan Griffith, who said it was unlikely — but not impossible — that members will “go crazy” and cut huge swaths of the workforce.

“I can’t tell you it won’t happen,” he said in an interview with the Washington Post. “The power is there. But isn’t that appropriate?”

The irony, Phelps said, is that the Holman Rule was originally passed in 1876 to root out political pressure in the federal workforce. At that time, every new administration brought in an entirely new federal workforce. Jobs were filled to return political favors, not based on qualifications.

The so-called “spoils system” let incoming presidents fire the existing workforce and replace it entirely with party loyalists. And since everyone owed their job to their party, the federal bureaucracy worked for the benefit of the party in power, not necessarily for the American people.

The Civil Service Commission became law in 1883 with the goal of awarding federal jobs based on merit instead of the political connections. The Holman Rule was reformed 1911, last regularly used in the `30s but it stayed on the books until it was fully repealed in 1983.  

“If they want to root out corruption, this is the about the worst thing Congress could do,” Phelps said. “This will make it much less likely you will get whistleblowers speaking out about presidential appointees. This will make waste and corruption more likely, not less.”

The Holman provision passed Jan. 3, but drew little attention because of the national furor House Republicans created when they tried, and failed, to weaken the House ethics office the same day.

As bad as the Holman rule reinstatement is, Phelps said that he expects this to be just the beginning. Since the Republicans took back the House in 2010, they have repeatedly passed bills to cut salaries, benefits and pensions, make it easier to fire federal workers and end dues deductions. Those never made it past President Obama’s veto pen, but Phelps said he is sure the bills have been dusted off and will arrive at the White House soon after Trump’s inauguration.

Phelps urged every member of the IBEW to call their representative and urge them to withdraw the rule, but he does not expect a change.

“This is the consequence of voting in people who you don’t realize don’t have your best interests at heart,” he said. “Working people who voted for change, I don’t think this is the change they wanted.”