The “Hastert Rule” Doesn’t Exist
Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who left Congress shortly after the GOP lost control of Congress in the 2006 elections, has been the topic of a lot of conversation in recent weeks due to something called the “Hastert Rule.” Under this rule attributed to the former Speaker, Republican Speakers won’t bring a bill to the floor unless it can garner the support of a majority of the GOP Caucus. It was allegedly because of this rule that the bill to provide relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy was pulled from the floor at the last minute in December 2012, much to the anger of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. It has also played a role in the ongoing crisis on Capitol Hill as the explanation for why Speaker Boehner has not brought the “clean” Continuing Resolution passed by the Senate to the floor. While that CR would pass, it would pass largely because of Democratic support and would likely not garner a majority of the GOP Caucus. It hamstrings Boehner in what he can do, and is clearly influencing how he is proceeding in dealings with the Senate and the President. There’s just one problem, Dennis Hastert says there there is no such thing as the “Hastert Rule”:
“Lookit, the Hastert rule didn’t exist,” former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said in an interview Thursday. “What happened is you lined up 218 votes.”
The idea gained traction after Hastert made an offhand comment during a 2006 press conference on an immigration bill, when he was asked by a reporter if he would consider moving the legislation with Democratic support. Hastert replied that that is “something I would not generally do,” adding he preferred to push legislation that enjoyed the backing of a majority of the Republican Conference.
“When I used the term ‘majority of the majority,’ that was in one specific case,” said Hastert, who is now a senior adviser at the law firm Dickstein Shapiro.
Hastert declined to say whether Boehner was right to stick to this approach in the current budget standoff, though he suggested it made no sense to team up with Democrats to advance their agenda at the expense of the GOP’s. ”You don’t go to the other party to move their philosophy. You’ve got to move your party’s philosophy.”
And he faulted both parties for failing to get the needed spending bills done on time, since that sets up a situation where ” people are playing these games to get what they want to get” given the urgent need to keep the government operating. “That’s the real problem,” Hastert said. “If you don’t have regular order, you get jammed up in the end.”
There are, quite obviously, good reasons for a Speaker of any party to be careful about what bills he brings to the floor. For one thing, there’s a danger in relying too heavily on votes from the opposition for the passage of any bill because that makes it very easy for said opposition to embarrass the Speaker by not voting in favor of it, thus essentially giving them powerful leverage over the majority party’s legislative agenda when it comes to bills that are controversial within the majority party. For another, Speakers are dependent upon the votes of their Caucus to win the Speakership and, under the right circumstances, subject to possibly being deposed if they lose enough support in that caucus to fall below a majority of the membership of the House of Representatives. Acting against the will of the majority of your own caucus is, therefore, potentially the path to political suicide.
At the same time, though, blind adherence to a rule that requires a “majority of the majority” for every vote makes no sense at all. For example, under the current breakdown of membership in the House (232 Republicans, 200 Democrats, and 3 vacancies), that potentially gives a group comprising just over 26% of the membership of the House veto authority over the agenda which is simply ridiculous. Furthermore, as Hastert notes, passing legislation in the House requires a majority of the whole membership of the House and there have long been times in American history where getting to that number means getting votes from the opposing party in order to get to that number (217 under the current House makeup). It happened during the Reagan years with the President’s tax bills, for example, which Reagan had to find a way to get passed in a House that had a larger Democratic majority than Republicans enjoy today. It worked in part because Reagan was able to sell his bill to the public, and they put pressure on Democratic legislators. Similar things have happened with close legislation in the past such as the Bush Tax Cuts, Medicare Part D, and TARP. Now, one can find problems with each of those pieces of legislation depending on where you sit politically, the point is that the legislative process by which they became law required reaching across the aisle to get the necessary votes.
There’s really only one reason that Boehner isn’t putting the “clean” CR on the floor, and it has nothing to do with the “Hastert Rule.” It’s because he knows his Speakership would potentially be over if he did so.