Dennis Hastert was the last Republican Speaker of the House. And he is credited with the rule that bears his name. His rule – the Hastert Rule – requires that any legislation the speaker places before the House be able to garner a majority of the majority vote. In other words, unless most Republicans favor the bill, it will not even be put up for a vote. This “rule” (which stems from the speaker’s prerogatives in controlling business before the House) means that bipartisan legislation, which would pass with a majority of both Republicans and Democrats voting, can be blocked by half of the sitting Republicans
Today there is only one person who can stop the back-bencher Tea Partiers in Congress from vetoing all sensible legislation. And his name is John Boehner, the current Speaker of the House. And he can only do so by abrogating the Hastert Rule.
For the second time ever since he became speaker, Mr. Boehner has permitted a bill to come to vote before the House that didn’t have the support of a majority of Republicans. Today it was the $50 billion disaster relief bill to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy – which passed 241-180. Of those 180 “nay” votes, 179 were Republicans.
Two weeks ago, it was the Tax Relief Act to avert the so-called Fiscal Cliff, which passed on New Year’s Day by a vote of 257 in favor to 167 against. Democrats voted 172-16 in favor while Republicans votes 151-85 against.
In the interim, the former speaker, Mr. Hastert himself, warned John Boehner that he was abandoning the Rule at his own peril. Said Mr. Hastert,
“Maybe you can do it once, maybe you can do it twice, but when you start cutting deals where you have to get Democrats to pass the legislation, you’re not in power anymore.”
And Mr. Hastert has a point. If you can’t command the loyalty of a majority of your own troops on important votes, then you’re a leader without followers. But the problem is that the Tea Party does not wish to be lead – or at least not in the direction of any sensible compromise, or really any compromise whatsoever.
There were rumblings when Mr. Boehner was reelected speaker for another term on January 3rd that he narrowly averted a surreptitious coup d’état. So we shall see how long Boehner survives in his current post, which he has said he needs “like I need a hole in the head.”
The third test of the Rule may come shortly in the upcoming vote to raise the Debt Ceiling – or in combination with a vote on sequester and/or continuing budget resolution. President Obama has indicated his willingness to compromise on a bargain where everyone gets some of what they want, but not all. Since the Tea Party does not compromise, and has shown itself unable to govern, Boehner will need to rely on Democratic votes to pass any compromise package through the House – jeopardizing both the Hastert Rule and perhaps his speakership.