Last week was a busy one for federal workers.
After 17 years at the US State Department, for example, TJ Lunardi decided to call it quits. Like other senior foreign service officers who, on January 25, 2017, left in what Washington Post journalist Josh Rogin characterized as an “ongoing mass exodus,” Lunardi concluded that he “simply could not serve in an executive branch” where he “would have to carry out [Trump’s] orders as president.” Trump, he decided, is “a threat to our constitutional values.”
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After Trump ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on that same day to remove its climate change page from the EPA website, an anonymous Badlands National Park federal employee (or group of employees) defiantly fired off a series of tweets that blended climate change facts with “exhortations to oppose Donald Trump’s nominees.” The Twitter campaign spread to other parks, with more tweets on climate change on official social media accounts.
These and other federal employee acts of noncooperation and defiance are just a taste of what’s to come over the next four years as federal employees face administration and GOP demands that they act against both “our constitutional values” and the very purposes of the agencies for which they labor.
Indeed, it is this defiance that House Republicans had hoped to prevent when on January 3, 2017 — the very first day of the 115th Congress — they resuscitated the Holman Rule.
The Holman Rule allows lawmakers to slash to $1 the salaries of individual federal workers. Though “first proposed in 1876 by Rep. William Steele Holman (D-Indiana), the provision’s original object,” explains Columbia law professor Patricia J. Williams, “was to curb corruption among customs officials.” The rule, however, “has strayed far from its original purpose;” it now gives Republicans “another tool with which to ‘starve the beast’ and enforce political conformity.” Williams states that while the Holman Rule doesn’t actually “grant the power to fire outright, as the original Holman Rule did, it does allow civil-service salaries to be reduced to $1 at the whim of legislators.”
The GOP revived the rule against the backdrop of two critical acts of defiance. One was US Department of Energy officials’ refusal to hand over to the incoming administration a list of federal employees who work on climate change. The other was the defiance expressed by one city and state official after another when they pledged, for example, to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants and to protect Muslims from “registration.”
Considered against these instances of noncooperation, the Holman Rule was clearly intended by House Republicans to be a weapon they could wield to scare federal employees away from resisting and thus from acting in solidarity with state and city employees, as well as citizens and noncitizens alike.
The possibility of widespread federal worker noncooperation looms large. After all, not only has Trump selected to head federal agencies’ men (primarily) and women who are downright hostile to the missions of the agencies in which federal workers labor; but both Trump and the GOP also have been threatening to roll back the 2.1 percent increase in federal worker pay and to take away civil service protections by making federal employees at-will workers. On January 23, 2017, Trump issued an executive order to freeze further hiring for a workforce already stretched thin, and on the following day he ordered federal workers to stop communicating with members of Congress and the press, a move that could “abruptly upend current operations and stifle work and discussions that routinely take place between branches of government.”
Then there’s the inconvenient truth that over the last eight years, the GOP-led Congress has expressed nothing but contempt for federal workers, articulated most clearly by the casualness with which it both orchestrated a shutdown in 2013 that hurt thousands of federal employees and continuously threatened further shutdowns — all the while vilifying the very workers upon whom they depended on a daily basis.
House Republicans’ attack on federal workers is actually a measure of the power that these workers can actually wield. As University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner explained to New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, “With both houses of Congress in Republican control, the greatest obstacle to the President’s use of power would be not the separation of powers but, more likely, the isolated actions of individuals in government. ‘Sometimes they won’t actually do what the President tells them to do, or they drag their feet, or they’ll leak to the press to try to embarrass him.'”
Federal employees who might engage in such acts of disobedience would do so at great risk of losing their jobs (and even their freedom), and it is the willingness of some workers to disobey in spite of the risks that House Republicans and the new administration fear most. Consequently, their resuscitation of the Holman Rule must be viewed for what it is: an effort to crush any and all potential resistance within the very workforce the GOP will need in order to carry out its work of raiding the US Treasury, dismantling our safety nets, transforming our public agencies into weapons wielded by private interests and, of course, targeting with anti-worker policies the federal work force itself.
But in reviving the Holman Rule as their first order of business, House Republicans have done us a favor: They have identified their own vulnerability. By focusing their ire on federal workers, House Republicans have effectively announced just how critical the federal workforce is in preventing the worst excesses of the GOP agenda.
Indeed, they let us know in no uncertain terms just how important it will be over the next four years for us to organize in ways that say to federal workers, all 2 million of them (the nation’s largest workforce): we got your back.