House Republicans this week reinstated an arcane procedural rule that enables lawmakers to reach deep into the budget and slash the pay of an individual federal worker - down to $1 - a move that threatens to upend the 130-year-old civil service.
The Holman Rule, named after an Indiana congressman who devised it in 1876, empowers any member of Congress to propose amending an appropriations bill to single out a government employee or cut a specific program.
The use of the rule would not be simple; a majority of the House and the Senate would still have to approve any such amendment. At the same time, opponents and supporters agree that the work of 2.1 million civil servants, designed to be insulated from politics, is now vulnerable to the whims of elected officials.
The revival of the Holman Rule was the brainchild of Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), who is intent on increasing the powers of individual members of Congress to reassign workers as policy demands.
He favors a strategic application, likening it to a bullet from a sniper rifle rather than a shotgun. It's unlikely - but not impossible - that members will "go crazy" and cut huge swaths of the workforce, he said.
"I can't tell you it won't happen," he said in an interview Wednesday in his office. "The power is there. But isn't that appropriate? Who runs this country, the people of the United States or the people on the people's payroll?"
Democrats and federal employee unions say the provision, which one called the "Armageddon Rule," could prove alarming to the federal workforce because it comes in combination with President-elect Donald Trump's criticism of the Washington bureaucracy, his call for a freeze on government hiring and his nomination of Cabinet secretaries who in some cases seem to be at odds with the mission of the agencies they would lead.
"This is part of a very chilling theme that federal workers are seeing right now," said Maureen Gilman, legislative director for the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal employees.
The rule is particularly troubling to Virginia and Maryland lawmakers and the District's nonvoting delegate, who represent large numbers of federal workers in the capital region.
The Holman provision passed Tuesday as part of a larger rules package but was overshadowed by the Republicans' effort to weaken the House ethics office on the first day of the new Congress.
Republican leaders say the rule increases accountability in government and played down concerns - some within their own party - that it will usher in broad changes to the appropriations process.
As a concession to Republicans who oppose the rule, leaders designed it to expire in one year unless lawmakers vote to keep it in place.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that voters elected Trump with the hope of fundamentally changing the way government works and that the Holman Rule gives Congress a chance to do just that.
"This is a big rule change inside there that allows people to get at places they hadn't before," he told reporters this week.
Asked which agencies would be targeted, he said that "all agencies should be held accountable and tested in a manner, and this is an avenue to allow them to do it."
The rule was the first thing House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) railed against in a floor speech Tuesday.
"Republicans have consistently made our hard-working federal employees scapegoats, in my opinion, for lack of performance of the federal government itself," he said. "And this rule change will allow them to make shortsighted and ideologically driven changes to our civil service."
The rule changes the process of passing spending bills by allowing any rank-and-file House member to propose an amendment that would cut a specific federal program or the jobs of specific federal employees, by slashing their salaries or eliminating their positions altogether.
Before the change, an agency's budget could be cut broadly, but a specific program, employee or groups of employees could not be targeted because of civil service protections.
Republicans and Trump advisers have been quietly drawing up plans since the election to erode some of the job protections and benefits that federal workers have received for a generation, starting with a hiring freeze Trump has pledged to put in place in his first 100 days in office.
Those plans include an end to automatic raises, a green light to fire poor performers, less generous pensions and a ban on union business on the government's dime.
Conservatives were thwarted from making these changes under President Obama, but with unified Republican rule in Washington and Trump pledging to shrink big government and shake up a system he has characterized as awash in "waste, fraud and abuse," they are more emboldened than ever.
Federal unions and their advocates in Congress - and even the Republican behind the rule - scrambled Wednesday to understand how the Holman rule would work.
"Now any backbencher can make an amendment to hear his voice heard on a particular program or group of employees," said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "We'll see how it's used, if it's used."
In light of recent inquiries by the Trump transition team about a list of Energy Department scientists who have worked on climate change, advocates for federal workers say they worry that bureaucrats could be targeted for political reasons.
Jeffrey Neal, former personnel chief at the Department of Homeland Security and now a senior vice president at ICF International, said the rule "creates a lot of opportunity for mischief."
Lawmakers could, in theory, even vote to roll back the 2.1 percent pay raise Obama gave federal employees starting Jan. 1, Neal said.
Early in its history, the rule was used to eliminate patronage jobs, particularly customs agents, in the late 19th century before the federal workforce shifted to a nonpolitical civil service.
The rule was dropped in 1983, when then-House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) objected to spending cuts proposed by Republicans and conservative Democrats.
Griffith, known as the unofficial parliamentarian in the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus, sought to revive it out of frustration with an $80 million federal program that pays for the care of wild horses on federal land in the West. He considers the program wasteful.
Although Griffith has few federal workers in his poor and rural district in southwest Virginia, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) noted that many of Griffith's constituents rely on federal programs.
"It's a back-door way of furthering your desire to dismantle that part of the federal operation," he said.
Connolly and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who each represent thousands of government employees in their Northern Virginia districts, said the rule heralds a new era of granular governing, giving the party in power the ability to mess with federal agencies at a microscopic level.
Several House Republicans tried to block revival of the Holman Rule in a closed-door meeting Monday evening.
Rep. Barbara Comstock, the only Republican member of Congress from Northern Virginia, voted for an amendment sponsored by Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Rob Bishop (R-Utah) to strip the rule from the package.
The rule "diminishes the roles of the authorizing committees in the House, and will make it more difficult to pass appropriations bills in the new Congress," Comstock's spokesman, Jeff Marschner, said in a statement.
However, when the rules package, including the Holman measure, came to the floor Tuesday, she voted for it, as did all but three Republicans. All the Democrats voted no.
Mike DeBonis and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.