The Hastert Rule: Politics or Practicality?


By Gautam Hathi.

The Speaker sits at the pinnacle of the House power structure. He controls the agenda and the voting schedule. An army of whips does his bidding and no law goes through the chamber without his approval. The Speaker can dole out pork, campaign cash, and committee assignments. Within the House of Representatives, the Speaker is king in all but name.

But heavy lies the head that wears the crown, as Speaker John Boehner has found out recently. The Speaker is elected by a majority vote of his or her conference (or caucus, in the case of the Democrats), and can be unseated by the same. Leadership coups are a constant worry for Speakers, as Newt Gingrich found out in the 1990s. The unity that the speaker commands can fall apart seemingly in an instant if the circumstances are right.

To provide an insurance against a rebellious rank and file, recent Speakers have unofficially adopted a policy known as the “Hastert Rule.” This term came out of former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s statement that “The job of speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority.” The theory goes that if the Speaker never holds a vote on legislation opposed by the majority of the majority, his rank and file will never have cause to launch a leadership coup.

This more recent policy contrasts with the way some Speakers ran the House as recently as twenty years ago. The North American Free Trade Agreement passed the House with a minority of Democrats supporting it, even though they were in the majority at the time under speaker Tom Foley. In the early 1980s, Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill was famous for letting Republicans, who controlled the Senate and the Presidency at the time, “run the floor”, believing that they would be undone by their own excesses. He let the House vote on Social Security cuts and then used that vote to win increased majorities during the 1982 elections. Today, it seems unthinkable that a Democratic speaker would let a bill cutting Social Security come to the floor.

Over the past few weeks, the Hastert Rule has once again come back into the limelight. Tea Party Republicans have been extremely persistent in pressing their policy positions and legislative demands. They have refused to accept solutions to the debt-ceiling crisis that the mainstream of their party has endorsed. In their view, the nation’s fiscal situation demands drastic action. To this end, they managed to force a government shutdown and almost managed to scuttle debt ceiling legislation by preventing it from coming up for a vote.

More broadly, there are a number of bills passed by the Senate and awaiting House action that a majority of members supports but which do not meet the “majority of the majority” threshold required by the Hastert Rule. Immigration reform and the farm bill are two prominent examples. Both bills passed by the Senate could probably be put through the House with a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, but Tea Party Republicans have opposed them so vigorously that Speaker Boehner has not been willing to put them to a vote on the floor. Although it is normally the Senate that has a reputation for gridlock, the Hastert Rule has turned the House into the bottleneck these past few months.

The key problem at the core of the Hastert Rule dilemma is that the Speakership is both a party office and an institutional one. The Speaker has broad powers over the House as its presiding officer. He controls the legislative agenda, appoints committee chairs, determines debate rules, and, most crucially, decides what is voted on and when. In a body as large as the House, such powers are often necessary, as it is extremely hard to keep 435 vote-grubbing legislators in line without keeping a strong hand on the tiller. While the Senate can deliberate effectively (at least sometimes) without having the leaders in complete control, the House is a different matter. This enforced discipline coming from the Speaker’s office has always been a key component of how the lower chamber works.

But the Speakership is also a highly partisan office. The Speaker is elected within his party and House members spend years rising through party leadership ranks before gaining control of the gavel. When the Speaker’s party is not in the White House, the Speaker is the highest-ranking member of the opposition, often seen as responsible for his party’s legislative agenda. Party members see the Speaker as responsible for giving them what they need to win their reelection campaigns, which are always on their minds. The ties that a Speaker has to his party can often seem greater than the ones he has to the House as a whole.

As a result, with polarization increasing and the election cycle beginning earlier and earlier, the modern Speaker has become increasingly torn between the different roles that he or she must fill. The Speaker simply cannot afford anymore to let the opposition “run the floor” as Tip O’Neil did. That would be a surefire way to provoke rebellion.

John Boehner has taken this lesson to heart during his time as Speaker. He has allowed bills to be passed with Democratic votes only when political pressure for him to do so has been overwhelming. Even after Hurricane Sandy, with footage constantly running on news networks of people in distress, the Speaker refused to let an aid bill come to the floor for several days because he did not think it would be supported by the majority of the Republican conference. Even still, he has only barely been able to tamp down the talk of rebellion from his right flank. Indeed, there was a moment during his re-election as Speaker when enough members had voted against him to make it look like he might not be elected.

Perhaps, however, after a government shutdown and two rounds of near-default with no political gains for Republicans, the value of the Hastert Rule is being seriously questioned. During the shutdown, Dennis Hastert himself, after long touting the value of party unity, made a 180 and declared that, “The Hastert Rule never really existed. It’s a non-entity as far as I’m concerned.” He went on to say that, “You can’t be in Congress and shut down government and get anything done. It’s an oxymoron.” Boehner himself eventually put a deal to solve the crisis on the floor even though it did not have support from a majority of his conference. Knowing that either a default or a continuing shutdown would be both bad politics and bad policy, he violated the “Hastert Rule” at the last minute to allow a vote on legislation to solve the crisis.

And at the end of the day, regardless of any other considerations, elected officials serve neither institutions nor parties. They serve the people who elected them, directly or indirectly, and elections will generally end up rewarding the parties that keep that principle in mind. John Boehner, being the savvy political operator that he is, seemed to realize this during the most recent fiscal fight. While this move was seen as surrender by many of the usual commentators, perhaps it was just a realization that in the grand scheme of things, the political and practical conundrum of the Speakership will resolve itself if the Speaker is just able to move the country forward.

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