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The absurdity of the Hastert Rule

Why does Dennis Hastert rule the world?
Dennis Hastert, former speaker of the US House of Representatives, attends the annual meeting of the Iranian resistance, presided over by the National...

Why does Dennis Hastert rule the world?

Hastert is the originator of the “Hastert Rule,” which saith that no House Speaker shall bring to the floor any legislation not supported by “the majority of the majority” (i.e., the majority of the Speaker’s caucus).

The current House Speaker, Republican John Boehner, is quaking at the prospect that, to avoid an Oct. 1 government shutdown for which the GOP would almost certainly be blamed, he may have to strip a provision defunding Obamacare (or possibly some other yet-to-be determined demand) from the pending continuing resolution (i.e., temporary appropriation bill). Should Boehner bring a “clean” CR to the floor, he risks losing a majority of his caucus and relying on enemy Democrats to get the bill passed. Even if Boehner sells House Republicans on averting a government shutdown, he may have to violate the Hastert Rule yet again to raise the debt limit, which his caucus is similarly pressuring him to use as a vehicle to defund Obamacare.

Who was Dennis Hastert, creator of this unbreakable political rule? Some biblical prophet who in ancient times carried his admonition, carved into stone tablets, down from Mount Sinai?

Actually, no. State-of-the-art carbon dating establishes that Congress managed for 215 years to function without any Hastert Rule, until 2004. That’s when then-Speaker Hastert, a Republican, pulled from the House floor the bill creating the position of director of national intelligence because it lacked support from a majority of the Republicans he was supposedly leading. Far from being praised for this surrender of authority to the “majority of the majority,” Hastert was criticized for spinelessness. (The bill eventually passed with a few tweaks to appease two grumpy committee chairmen.)

Before Hastert, speakers ignored the majority of the majority whenever circumstances warranted it. The Atlantic’s Molly Ball recently noted that Tip O’Neill had no choice but to violate the yet-unwritten Hastert Rule many times because his caucus contained a lot of conservative southern Democrats. (O’Neill’s various triumphs over partisan division are nicely documented in Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, by MSNBC host and onetime O’Neill staff aide Chris Matthews, due out next week.)

But O’Neill was hardly unique in this respect. House Speakers are expected to press forward with important legislation even when it’s not supported by a majority of their party.  Speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat (1989-1995) violated the Hastert Rule at least six times, as did his successor, Newt Gingrich. Even after Hastert codified his Rule, Nancy Pelosi violated it at least seven times.

A New York Times tally last April calculated that the Hastert Rule had been violated 36 times over the previous 22 years. Boehner has already violated it several times himself. At best the Hastert Rule is (to quote Bill Murray in Ghostbusters) “more of a guideline than a rule.”

What about Hastert himself? Today he is remembered for being the longest-serving Republican speaker in history (1999-2007), just nosing out “Uncle” Joe Cannon (1903-11). Cannon was the most powerful House speaker in history, and he was eventually stripped of many powers in a revolt. Hastert, by contrast, was a onetime gym coach elevated from deputy whip to the speakership as a sort of proxy for Tom DeLay, the powerful House majority whip, who knew he was too controversial to take the top job. During his speakership, Hastert (who now works as a lobbyist) was regarded as one of the Bush era’s less-consequential political figures. Once when writing a DeLay profile for George magazine, I asked Hastert if he had ever disagreed with DeLay about anything. He said he had but that he couldn’t remember those instances.

But perhaps Hastert had more spine than we give him credit for, because it turns out he violated the Hastert Rule no fewer than 12 times, or more than any speaker in recent memory (except perhaps O’Neill). If Denny Hastert must be elevated to the status of prophet, remember him not for the craven rule he invented, but for his willingness to violate it again and again. Hastert never suffered any notable consequences for these transgressions. Speaker Boehner, take note.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that House Speaker Joe Cannon was ousted in a revolt. The revolt occurred but he was not ousted. He was merely stripped of many powers. We regret the error.