Adopting old-school rule would show House is serious about reform
© Greg Nash

On Jan. 2, the House Republican Conference will consider the rules package for the 115th session of Congress. The next day, the House will vote on this proposal.

Far from a mundane exercise, deliberation and adoption of the rules provides insight about the governing priorities of the majority party.

The proposed rules would bring back a provision from 1876 to allow members to reduce spending, enhance oversight on the federal government and, in narrow ways, change the law. Its consideration shows that House leadership is serious about reforming the way Capitol Hill works.

This throwback rule, known as the Holman rule, is as relevant today as it was when it was introduced in the nation's centennial year. Its potential revival is a sign that House leadership wants to give members a greater role in reducing the federal behemoth.

William Holman was a Democrat and a son of Indiana. A public school teacher, attorney and judge, Holman was first elected to the House for the Hoosier State in 1859. He arrived at a time of flux for the chamber, just prior to the Civil War. In 1865, the year the war ended, and the House established a new committee: Appropriations. Prior to 1865, the Ways and Means Committee had jurisdiction over appropriations bills. That practice ended.

The new Appropriations Committee had the power to reduce federal spending, which had soared during the war. The national debt rose from $65 million in 1860 to $2.7 billion in 1865. In the wake of this debt, the federal government acted responsibly and ran surpluses and helped reduce the debt to $961 million from 1866 to 1893. That reduction was influenced in part by a change to the House rules by Holman, a member of the Appropriations Committee.

According to congressional history of the Appropriations Committee, Holman advanced a change to the House rules that "allowed amendments for reductions in expenditures in appropriations bills to be presented by the committee to the full House. Holman argued that this new power would reduce spending and prohibit any amendments to the committee's bill that would increase funding."


Holman's eponymous rule would help to cut wasteful spending and give more power to the nascent Appropriations Committee. There was some opposition to giving one committee the power to undo or revise the work of other committees in the chamber, but the rule passed the House by a 156 to 102 vote.

Typically, appropriations measures cannot change existing laws. That prohibited practice is known as "legislating on appropriations bills." But under the Holman rule, changes could be made to retrench or reduce spending in appropriations measures.

As Louis Fisher noted, what Holman instituted was a method to empower the committee and members to save the taxpayers money through proposing and enacting "the reduction of the number and salary of the 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 bill."

Under the rule, "legislative riders" are permitted on spending bills if they lower spending. Fiscal changes could impact policy outcomes. The notion of legislating on spending bills has always been a convenient fiction: spending decisions drive policy. Holman recognized this, and developed an elegant solution.

Subsequent Congresses would modify, revise and, by 1983, greatly diminish the Holman rule. For the last few years, Rep. Morgan GriffithHoward (Morgan) Morgan GriffithOvernight Energy: Senate Dems introduce Green New Deal alternative | Six Republicans named to House climate panel | Wheeler confirmed to lead EPA Six Republicans named to House climate panel House passes bill expressing support for NATO MORE (R-Va.) has championed the revival of the rule. As Griffith explained:

My proposal would give Members of both parties the ability to offer amendments on the floor and in the Appropriations Committee to cut the amount of money an agency could receive, the number of employees that the U.S. government or its agencies could have, and the amount of money that could be paid to an employee of the U.S. government. 

Griffith submitted his idea to revive the Holman rule to the House Rules Committee as part of its consideration of rules for the 115th Congress. If approved, the rule would only apply to the first session of the upcoming Congress — that means just for 2017.

And if approved, it will face opposition from the status quo as it is implemented. That is because the rule will make it easier to root out waste, confront crony constitutionalism and turn the appropriations process into a means to reform government, not a way to ratify the inertia of the current appropriations apparatus.

The House leadership is to be commended for its courage in allowing the Holman rule to be considered by the conference, and hopefully approved by the House. And Griffith deserves credit for helping to resurrect the rule. The United States is nearly $20 trillion in debt, with a bureaucracy that is out of control, and federal functions far exceeding what the Constitution permits.

If the Holman rule is adopted, 2017 can be known as the year that Hoosier common sense helped save the Union. It would be a fitting requiem for Rep. William Holman and a practical step toward restoring fiscal sanity in Congress.

Neil Siefring is vice president of Hilltop Advocacy, LLC and a former Republican House staffer. Follow him on Twitter @NeilSiefring.

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