How Congress Can Reassert Its Oversight Authority While Limiting Political Controversy

August 4, 2023  

  • Congressional Reform
  • Blog

By: Gabriel Côté

At the beginning of the 118th Congress, the House adopted its rules package like it does at the beginning of every two-year session. In gaining the majority for the first time in four years, Republicans made many changes to how the chamber would operate. While the protracted Speaker battle  and calls for “regular order” received most of the attention, the House also reinstated a lesser-known rule that could provide an important tool for reasserting Congress’s Article I authority.

The Holman Rule

First adopted in 1876, the Holman rule was proposed by Rep. William Holman (D-IN) because he was unhappy with increased spending, saying that the country faced an “increase of expenditure during the last twelve years…It is proposed now to go backward along the same road that we have traveled and by means of a modification of the rules retrench the expenditures of the Government.” The rule originally read:

“No appropriation shall be reported in such general appropriation bills, or be in order as an amendment thereto, for any expenditure not previously authorized by law, unless in continuation of appropriations for such public works and objects as are already in progress: nor shall any provision in any such bill or amendment thereto changing existing law be in order, except such as, being germane to the subject-matter of the bill, shall retrench expenditures.”

Historically, Congress has had an uneasy relationship with the rule and has added it to and removed it from the rulebook several times over the past 147 years.

From the beginning, some feared the rule would give too much power to the Committee on Appropriations. As then Rep. James Garfield (R-OH) stated:

“As I understand the rule now proposed, it will allow the Committee on Appropriations to re-organize the Army, to re-organize the Navy, to re-organize the Treasury Department, in short to recast all the legislation concerning the public service, not merely as to the amount of money to be appropriated, but as to the size and conditions of that service.”

In fact, in its original form the rule was very broad. As noted by CRS, the House has narrowed the Holman rule over time. The current version, states:

“During the One Hundred Eighteenth Congress, any reference in clause 2 of rule XXI to a provision or amendment that retrenches expenditures by a reduction of amounts of money covered by the bill shall be construed as applying to any provision or amendment (offered after the bill has been read for amendment) that retrenches expenditures by—

(1) reduction of amounts of money in the bill;
(2) the reduction of the number and salary of the officers of the United States; or
(3) the reduction of the compensation of any person paid out of the Treasury of the United States.”

Reasserting Article I Authority

At its essence, the Holman rule is still about reducing spending, but it also provides a potential oversight tool for Congress. As Georgetown law professor Josh Chafetz testified before the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, Congress has a responsibility to oversee the executive branch but it has relatively few tools to enforce compliance with oversight requests.

Typically, Congress has sought compliance through the courts which has served as an ineffective tool, at best. Per Chafetz, “simply by bringing a dispute to court, a congressional chamber is effectively giving up on forcing information from the executive on a useful timeframe.” Moreover, it slows down the investigations to the benefit of the executive.

According to Chafetz, allowing Congress to use its power of the purse more nimbly to slash “funds for a misbehaving agency or even zeroing out the salary of a contumacious official” could help Congress get answers more quickly from the executive branch. This could be achieved under the revived Holman rule which allows the House to cut the salary of the officers of the United States’ government.

Oversight Tool or Political Weapon?

That’s not to say the Holman rule is without controversy. During the Modernization hearing, members questioned the proposal, wondering whether it would become yet another political weapon to threaten the White House when it is held by the opposite party that controls the House of Representatives. Those concerns may have some merit.

In the most recent congresses where the rule was in order, it has primarily used by members of the Freedom Caucus. For example, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) proposed an amendment “to reduce the salary of Mark Gabriel, the Administrator of the Western Area Power Administration [(WAPA)], to $1.” Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) proposed an amendment citing the Holman rule: “To reduce the appropriations to the Congressional Budget Office by 50.4 percent.” And, Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) also cited the Holman rule in one of his amendments to abolish the Budget Analysis Division of the Congressional Budget Office which would have eliminated 89 jobs. None of these efforts succeeded. More recently, some have speculated that House Republicans could use the Holman rule as an alternative to impeachment against the Biden Administration.

Under its current formulation it is clear that the Holman rule can be viewed as either an effective oversight tool or a political weapon—depending on one’s perspective. But it doesn’t have to be.

The Path to Good Governance

To ensure that it does not become politicized, the House should reform the Holman rule so that it can only be used if it either has bipartisan cosponsors or requires a two-thirds supermajority to be enacted. This would provide Congress an effective oversight tool while ensuring it is not misused for political retribution.

One person’s oversight is often another person’s partisan witch hunt, especially when the House is controlled by a party in opposition to the president. But oversight of the executive is a key function of the legislative branch, as outlined in Article I of the U.S. Constitution, and Congress cannot be asked to defer that responsibility in order to avoid political controversy. Nor does it need to. By embracing bipartisan oversight of its own use of the Holman rule, Congress can reassert its Article I authority while avoiding the mistaken impression of partisan bias. That would be good for Congress, and the government as a whole.

Gabriel Côté is an intern in the Sunwater Institute’s Congressional Reform program.