Morgan Griffith wants to shoot horses.
Well, maybe not personally. And maybe not even shoot them. But he does want to kill some wild horses out west. Ironically, that’s not why he’s been in the national news lately, but it is the reason that led him to resurrect an obscure rule that has now made the Republican congressman from Salem the bane of some liberal commentators.
Both of Virginia’s congressmen from west of the Blue Ridge have found themselves making headlines in the new Congress. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, was at the forefront of the failed attempt to restructure the Office on Congressional Ethics, and that’s where most of the attention has gone. Meanwhile, Griffith made the news — just not as much — for actually getting through his rule change.
As reported by The Washington Post, the rule change “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.” That’s not entirely true. In fact, the rule would allow Congress to cut a federal worker’s pay to zero.
To understand why Griffith wanted this rule, we have to start with wild horses. Actually, we have to start with Griffith’s parsimonious nature. He sleeps in his congressional office to save money on a D.C. apartment and he likes to be just as stingy about spending taxpayers’ dollars, as well.
For the past few years, he’s been frustrated by how much money the federal government pays to take care of wild horses. It seems that back in the ‘70s, the wild horses running free on lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management were eating so much grass that ranchers didn’t want to lease the land for their cattle. (Let’s set aside the question of why the federal government owns so much land in the first place.) To make the lands more attractive to ranchers, the bureau set up a program whereby it would remove some of the horses and pay farmers to take care of them until they could be adopted.
“Well, very few were adopted,” Griffith says. So now we have 50,000 animals living in what he calls “wild horse and burro retirement homes.” Taxpayers pay $80.5 million a year to run the program. Griffith has a different idea. “History shows adoptions aren’t going to happen, so we need to humanely euthanize the horses.”
So, yes, the 9th District has a congressman who wants to kill horses. Making that happen, though, has been hard, for all the reasons you might imagine, and probably others. Now we come to another aspect of Griffith’s personality: He’s a stickler for the rules. The Post calls him “the unofficial parliamentarian in the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus.”
Before this Congress convened, Griffith sent one of his interns on a research project that perhaps only Griffith could conceive: He wanted “core samples” of the House rules over the years, with the intern digging up the old rules at 10-year increments.
Eureka! In 1876, the House passed something known as “the Holman Rule,” named after a Democrat from Indiana who was equally obsessed with cutting the federal budget. Once, when Rep. William Holman went on an inspection tour of the Dakota Territory, he refused a sleeper car and slept instead in his seat, saying the sleeper car would cost taxpayers too much. When his delegation arrived at one fort, the commander proposed the soldiers fire a salute.” No! No! For God’s sake, don’t!” one of Holman’s fellow congressmen objected. “He will object to the useless waste of powder.” Holman would have probably liked Griffith very much.
Here’s where we must dive down a rabbit hole of rules. In theory, the House and Senate appropriations committees already had — and still have — the power to slash a federal employee’s pay to whatever they see fit. Holman’s rule simply allowed all the other members of the House to propose a floor amendment to do the same thing. That’s why Griffith doesn’t think the rule is that big a deal. “It’s a nice tool, and effective in small measures,” he says. “But it’s not an Armageddon, sky-is-falling type of amendment,” which is how some have portrayed it.
The Holman Rule was also in effect for more than a century, until the Democrats who then controlled the House finally did away with it in 1983 — so Griffith contends it really has quite a long history and is discontinuance was the real aberration. Reagan-era Republicans and conservative Democrats — when there were such creatures — were thinking about using the rule, so then-Speaker Tip O’Neill thought it best to retire it.
Finally, Griffith points out, this rule simply would allow House members to amend an appropriations bill, which would still have to be passed by the Senate, and then signed by the president. He doubts it will be used that much; Democrats eyeing a Republican-controlled Congress and Donald Trump in the White House aren’t so sure. The always-colorful Griffith invokes another analogy: “We currently have power to declare war on Canada. I don’t expect to declare war on Canada anytime soon. Just because we have the power, people think we’re getting ready to cut all the federal wages.” (Somewhere, the Canadian ambassador just dropped his morning cup of coffee.)
Griffith can find only a handful of examples of where the Holman Rule was ever used — and he’s unsure if any of those bills actually got enacted. In 1932, there was an effort to restructure a New York customs office that some considered corrupt. In 1938, there was an effort to cap the number of officers in what some considered a bloated Navy. (Griffith acknowledges that may not be the best example, considering what happened three years later at Pearl Harbor.) In 1952, there was a move to limit the number of employees in certain government agencies. “It’s meant to be surgical in nature,” he says.
Democrats see this as micro-management; Griffith says that’s exactly the point. This pro-coal legislator has his eyes on the Environmental Protection Agency in particular.
Alas, he says, the rule wouldn’t let him do what he really wanted to do: He can’t use it to eliminate the wild horse program; all he could do would be to eliminate the money for it. “Then you’d just have a lot of starving horses.”