Friday, January 6, 2017

A History of the Holman Rule

As the new 115th Congress began its work this week, one of the first orders of business was to adopt procedural rules. House Resolution 5 (text at, Adopting Rules for the One Hundred Fifteenth Congress, garnered much attention for its original controversial plan to limit the powers of the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, approved during a closed vote. Following thousands of constituent phone calls (and Twitter criticism from President-Elect Donald Trump regarding congressional priorities), the move was abandoned less than 24 hours later.

However, a new controversy over the rules package took shape yesterday, when the media took note of another provision, the "Holman rule." Originally developed in 1876 but removed from the standing rules in 1983, the Holman Rule allows a member of Congress to propose appropriations amendments which reduce "the number and salary of the officers of the United States" or "the compensation of any person paid out of the Treasury of the United States." As noted in the Washington Post, this measure has raised concerns about the ability of Congress to target individual federal civil servants for punitive salary reduction, or federal programs for elimination.

News reports frequently describe the Holman rule as "obscure," likely due to its removal from the standing rules more than three decades ago. So what is the history of this Holman rule? Answers can be found in some classic Congressional procedure treatises, such as Cannon's Precedents and Deschler's Precedents. Both are available through the subscription database HeinOnline's Congressional Documents library, as well as for free through the U.S. Government Publishing Office's 8 Deschler's Precedents § 4 contains a historical overview of the Holman Rule, covering its development in the late 1800s, to its limitation of scope by the 98th Congress in 1983. The congressional precedent texts can be browsed for free on GovInfo, or searched and browsed on FDsys. More details are provided in the 2010 publication A Concise History of the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations.

For more information about congressional rules and procedures, try a subject search of the Duke Libraries Catalog for "United States. Congress. House -- Rules and practice" or "Parliamentary practice -- United States." You'll find titles like House Practice: A Guide to the Rules, Precedents, and Procedures of the House (2011) and Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process (10th ed. 2016). For help locating these or other titles on the topic, be sure to Ask a Librarian.