Opinion | Hank Johnson Jr.

The coming civil servant witch hunt

FILE-- House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) during the opening of the 115th U.S. Congress in the chambers of the House of Representatives at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 3, 2017. House Republicans couldnÕt stop themselves from trying to dilute the power of a despised ethics watchdog as their first order of business. In the process, they created a spectacle that pretty much ruined an opening-day celebration of unified Republican government, undermined their own leadership and perhaps foretold the shape of things to come. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)
Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Speaker Paul Ryan during the opening of the 115th US Congress on Jan. 3.

The GOP took a lot of flak this past week for its foolish attempt to use House rules to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. Public scrutiny quickly sunk that effort, but another very dangerous rule change passed without much fanfare or media attention.

As a result, House Republicans — with the backing of the incoming Trump administration — now have powerful tools to attack not just entire federal departments, but to go after individual federal workers as well.

It’s called the Holman Rule, which was first used in 1876 and last used by Congress in 1983. It allows members on either side of the aisle to offer amendments to appropriations bills — which are often hundreds of pages long — in order to reduce the amount of money an agency receives, the number of employees an agency has, or the amount of money an individual federal employee can be paid.


It’s alarming that members of Congress will now be able to engage in targeted witch hunts against entire departments or individual employees who happen to work on subjects that do not fit a representative’s values or agenda.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The most obvious targets are Department of Energy climate scientists and State Department teams that work on gender equality issues — both of which have already been singled out by yet-to-be-sworn-in Trump administration. But the rule change can broadly apply to any program or individual civil servant.

This means any federal employees — such as those who help monitor dangerous chemicals in the environment, patent examiners, those who administer vital health and food programs, federal student loan advisers — can be targeted.

Reviving the Holman Rule is not just about finding waste. The author of the rule change clearly stated that members could cut the amount of money “that could be paid to an employee of the US government.”

This is not to say that House members would engage in such behavior, but even allowing for such powers in the legislative process, without any input from the agency or the targeted employee, is unacceptable.


The federal workforce has undergone many cutbacks under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The fantastical myth that civil servants are somehow responsible for a ballooning “big government” is simply pretext for baseless political attacks on federal workers.

Employees of the federal government work in every congressional district to keep our food, water, and air safe for all Americans. We must take a stand to protect hard-working, diligent employees who now find themselves at risk of losing their jobs or suffering crippling pay cuts if a particular member of Congress or president decides to single him or her out.

Members of our country’s federal workforce should not be turned into political pawns.

Henry C. “Hank” Johnson Jr., a Democrat, represents Georgia’s Fourth Congressional District and is a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee and Armed Services Committee.