How the Freedom Caucus Hopes to Defund the Police
Much of the country watched the opening of the 118th Congress descend into chaos earlier this month as Rep. Kevin McCarthy struggled to consolidate support for his bid to become speaker of the House. The once-in-a-century contestation of the speaker vote was even more dramatic from the vantage of those of us inside the room. We watched our colleagues nearly come to blows over whether a group of holdouts from the right-wing House Freedom Caucus would support McCarthy or force the elevation of another candidate.
But the tension inside the House chamber and the back-room deals outside it that helped advance the drama did not signal the opening act in this power play. That came much earlier, which might explain why it escaped the notice of most who tuned in for the week of roll calls in the House. Speaker McCarthy’s vote woes actually began last summer, when the Freedom Caucus quietly advanced a mechanism by which their most radical members now hope to defund both the federal investigations into Donald Trump and the law enforcement agencies conducting them.
In the caucus’s opening bid to McCarthy last July, it outlined some of the concessions its members would require in exchange for their support for his speakership bid in a new House majority. One of these concessions was the reinstatement of a little-known House procedure called the Holman Rule. McCarthy accepted this and other demands shortly before the House cast the first of our fifteen speaker ballots.
So what is the Holman Rule, and why is it so important to hard-right MAGA conservatives?
The Holman Rule is named after Indiana Representative William Steele Holman, who proposed it in 1876. The rule was altered, removed, or reinstated repeatedly over the following century before it was repealed by then-Speaker Tip O’Neill in 1983. The basic structure remained consistent throughout the hundred-plus years it was in place: It allowed for specific provisions to reduce or eliminate the salaries of individual federal employees or offices. This creates a mechanism for legislators to, in effect, fire individual federal employees with appropriations riders on must-pass government funding bills.
This may sound innocuous enough, but it is important to understand why the Freedom Caucus wanted the rule reinstated so badly. To this end there are two important points to consider: The first has to do with the history of the civil service, the second with Donald Trump.
Until 1883, employees of the United States government were largely determined via the spoils system: A victorious presidential candidate would populate federal positions across the country with cronies and political allies, regardless of experience, ability, or competence. This was an ongoing source of chaos, inefficiency, and corruption, and Congress finally took a big step to end it with the Pendleton Act of 1883. The act provided the foundation of today’s permanent, merit-based civil service, which is designed to select applicants based on experience and competence rather than personal connections or political allegiance.
Nobody thinks the federal government is perfect—most of us know stories of inefficiency created by bureaucracy. But the vast majority of federal workers are conscientious people who forgo the generally larger salaries available in the private sector in order to serve their country. The alternative—a constantly rotating, inexperienced, completely politicized workforce, such as Americans had to deal with before the Pendleton Act—is far worse. That was the reality Donald Trump would have reinstated with his “Schedule F” proposal: a federal workforce that owes its power, position, and livelihood to the person of the president, not the American people.
Today we have the Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency empowered by Congress to conduct disciplinary matters in the federal workforce free of partisan interference. This creates a sturdy obstacle for those who would seek political vengeance on perceived enemies in the career federal workforce. But that obstacle can be bypassed via the Holman Rule.
And that is where Donald Trump comes in.
Following Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016, and with his campaign slogan about “draining the swamp” in mind, the Republican House majority revived the long-defunct Holman Rule in January of 2017, making it part of the rules package for the 115th Congress.
Freedom Caucus Members then proposed Holman Rule actions to punish federal employees.
Rep. Mark Meadows tried to use it to eliminate the positions of 89 staff at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, presumably in retaliation for CBO having given unflattering scores to Republican legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Reps. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) likewise used it in attempts to get back at civil servants. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) later proposed using an appropriation to eliminate Anthony Fauci’s salary.
Importantly, not one of these efforts was successful because each lacked the support of Republican leadership. (For her part, Greene proposed her bill, the “Fire Fauci Act,” during a period when the Holman Rule was not even in force.) But this dynamic was turned on its head earlier this month when it became clear that the Freedom Caucus is calling the shots in the new Republican majority.
Their more recent history with the Holman Rule is very concerning.
On August 5, 2022, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) publicly called for use of the Holman Rule to “start defunding some of these bad agencies—the FBI, the DOJ.” Biggs’s desire to defund the FBI and the Justice Department was echoed by Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert, and others. Notably, the Freedom Caucus letter to McCarthy that demanded reinstatement of the Holman Rule was led by Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Scott Perry (R-Penn.), a major figure in the plot to overturn the 2020 election results. (You might recall that his cell phone was seized last summer by the FBI.)
It is not a coincidence that the people seeking to defund the FBI and the Justice Department are people who were heavily involved in the plot to overturn the 2020 election, which has since become the subject of the largest criminal investigation in American history. Most of those named above requested presidential pardons from Donald Trump, and they have consistently been some of his most zealous allies in seeking to use their power to silence, intimidate, and punish his enemies.
It is this fringe element, which tried to help Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election, that now hopes to extend the same chaos and nihilism to the rest of the federal government. The irony should not be lost on anyone that those plotting to defund law enforcement were previously some of the loudest critics of calls to “defund the police.” Today, instead of “backing the blue,” they hope to defund the federal police to shield Donald Trump from investigation.
The Holman Rule passed as part of the House rules package less than 48 hours after McCarthy finally became speaker, with only one Republican voting against it. In 2017, a handful of moderates and experienced Republican leaders tried to prevent the return of the Holman Rule. Sadly, no one in today’s House GOP conference was willing to take that stand.
So where does that leave us now that the Holman Rule is in place?
The federal prosecutions of January 6th insurrectionists, the Justice Department, the FBI, and even Special Counsel Jack Smith have been identified as potential targets. The Freedom Caucus could try to eliminate the salary of Merrick Garland, Christopher Wray, or others in the FBI and DOJ, effectively firing them. Republicans could try to zero out funding for the FBI’s D.C. field office or the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to end the DOJ’s January 6th investigation.
The principle is simple: All who pose a threat to Donald Trump or to the larger MAGA cohort must be deterred, blocked, punished, or fired.
The extreme right flank of the House GOP can’t do this on their own. The legislative process requires bills to pass the House and the Senate before either receiving a signature from the president, or overcoming his veto.
But that’s the trick of the Holman Rule: By making must-pass funding bills available as a vehicle for riders that eliminate salaries or defund government programs, the rule enables the House majority to bypass traditional legislative barriers to firing federal employees or shutting down federal operations outright. The Freedom Caucus said repeatedly during the speaker showdown that they intend to do exactly this, playing hardball with those must-pass bills—going so far as to threaten government shutdowns or a catastrophic debt default to extract concessions.
The Freedom Caucus may use these threats to attack the Justice Department and the FBI, both to ensure that Trump is protected from accountability and to protect themselves from any potential criminal exposure. This is a nightmare scenario: It could see the U.S. government paralyzed, our economy harmed, and the country undergoing some of the worst attacks on the rule of law we have ever seen.
That threat is very real.
Preventing this outcome will require more backbone than the moderate wing of the GOP has shown so far. The Freedom Caucus outmaneuvered them over and over again to seize the reins of the new majority. There are reasonable people in the House Republican Conference, but as long as they continue to acquiesce to a leadership that is dominated by the extreme fringe of their party, they can’t do anyone any good.
The Congress—and far more importantly, the country—may soon depend on those reasonable Republicans to stand up to the radical right. There may be enormous consequences for American families and the future of our democracy if they don’t.