The golden ticket? This obscure House rule can help conservatives land major blows
Game changer puzzle piece

This obscure House rule can help conservatives land major blows

The Holman Rule allows GOP to build momentum for quick surgical strikes against wasteful and harmful federal agencies.

Posted January 06, 2017 06:00 AM by Daniel Horowitz Game changer puzzle piece
Syaheir Azizan | Shutterstock
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Amidst the imbroglio over the proposed House rules change to the Pelosi-era ethics office, House Republicans enacted another rules change that can potentially serve as a game changer for fiscal conservatives.

At a time when individual members and committees in the people’s House have lost significant control over the power of the purse, the restoration of an obscure budget-cutting rule will allow conservative members to build momentum for quick surgical strikes against wasteful and harmful federal agencies.

As part of the rules package, thanks to Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va. (D, 67%), Congress temporarily restored the “Holman Rule,” a previously-defunct House rule that allowed individual members to force an up-or-down vote on a budget bill to cut funding, salaries, or personnel from any particular agency.

At its core, the federal government has grown unaccountable and inimical to our best interests because Congress has abdicated its power of oversight and appropriations. Given that statutory changes require a cumbersome legislative process that relies on House leadership to recognize legislation on the House floor and the minority party in the Senate to not filibuster the bill on its way to passage, it is almost impossible for conservatives to exercise proper oversight of wasteful agencies and their harmful policies.

That is why the ability to quickly rein in agencies with funding cuts during budget bills represents the last hope of the people to redress their grievances with government. Madison referred to this power of the House in Federalist 58 as “the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance.”

Unfortunately, over the years, liberal party leadership, in conjunction with the House Appropriations Committee — which serves as a conduit for the speaker — has shut down the ability of members and authorizing policy committees to pursue a grassroots effort to trim the size of government through the budget. They slam budget bills on the floor without addressing any of the policy problems in government ignored in the appropriations bills and deny members the ability to offer amendments. 

For example, conservative members of the House Financial Services Committee might want to abolish the unaccountable Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or at least trim its funding, but leadership will stymie efforts to pass such legislation. Moreover, the Appropriations Committee, which over the years has completely overpowered the authorizing committees, will not include the desired spending cuts in the final budget bill. This is where the effectiveness of the Holman Rule comes into play.

The importance of the Holman Rule

Originally adopted in 1876 as a way of empowering members to shrink the size of government, the Holman Rule, named after former Rep. William Holman (D-Ind.), provides an exception to the rule against proposing amendments that change policy through the budget bill.

The rule allowed members to change policy if the outcome would result in the reduction of salaries or spending to a particular agency or personnel within the agency. While it makes sense not to allow individual members to quickly grow the size of government without the transparency of an authorization bill, Congress needs a quick tool to exercise its power of the purse to clamp down on the leviathan. Former Rep. Tom Hagedorn (R-Minn.) succinctly explained the need for the Holman exception to legislating in appropriation bills:

It would be a serious mistake for the House to accept restrictions on its freedom of action in the form of outlawing limitation amendments. Such amendments serve a valuable function in enabling the House to act in a timely fashion when time is of the essence, and even to act at all on matters which might otherwise never reach the floor for decision. [1]

After being in place on and off in varying degrees for more than a century, the Holman Rule was abolished by Democrats in the ‘80s as a way of stopping the Reagan Republicans from shrinking government. With the reinstatement of the rule, there is now a new opportunity for fiscal conservatism and making congressional oversight great again.

So what happens now?

Now that the Republican House has reinstated the rule for one year, House conservatives can use this as a tool to gain the upper hand in negotiations with the other branches of government. Let’s not kid ourselves here: The Senate is de facto in Democratic hands, and Donald Trump will not be with us on all fiscal issues. Moreover, even on the policy issues in which he supports the conservative position, it will be very hard to secure statutory changes through the legislative process, given the dearth of conservatives in the Senate.

By allowing individual House members to insert last-minute budget cuts and funding conditions to various federal agencies, the House will be able to obtain the upper hand in negotiations with the Senate. If applied properly, House conservatives can use the Holman Rule to load up budget bills with spending cuts and limitations that are significant enough to make an impact but not controversial enough to justify the Senate risking a government shutdown to oppose them.

Outside conservative organizations can build support for these amendments and publicize the roll call for each of them.

House leadership has reportedly warned that this change will be guaranteed for only one year as a “pilot program,” and they could relinquish it if members “abuse” this prerogative. However, if they really cared about limiting government and preserving their supremacy over the Senate with regard to spending, they would make the Holman Rule permanent. 

During the Constitutional Convention (July 6, 1787), George Mason made it clear that “the power of giving away the people’s money” should be placed primarily “in the hands of the Representatives of the people” and not the “aristocracy” of the Senate.

The Holman Rule ensures that the entire people are represented in the power of the purse through individual members rather than the growing aristocracy of House leadership and appropriators. As Tom Hagedorn said in 1978 when speaking in favor of the rule: "[N]othing could be more consistent with the congressional power of the purse than the right of this body and its Members to eliminate wasteful expenditures."

Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.