Memo to conservatives: There is no `Hastert Rule’

With immigration reform looming in the House, Roll Call reports that House conservatives are increasing pressure on Speaker John Boehner to not allow anything to pass the lower chamber if it requires a lot of Democratic votes to do so:

An insurgent group of House Republicans is pushing to codify the “Hastert rule” to only allow bills with majority GOP support to come to the floor. [..]

“Normally, the Hastert Rule is not that critical of a thing, but in this case, with something so important as immigration, it’s important that you have the people’s will reflected,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said. “And the Hastert rule would do a greater job to achieve that.”

Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., is helping to lead the effort, circulating a petition among GOP lawmakers.

“This is an effort led by a growing group of members in our Republican conference that want to ensure we fight for policies that the majority of our conference supports,” he said in a statement. “Codifying the Hastert Rule reinforces our resolve to consider legislation that doesn’t grow government and doesn’t cede legislative power to the minority party. I believe this will actually strengthen the hands of our Republican leadership by fostering a unified voice among our conference.”

But guess what: There is no “Hastert Rule.” I know this because the author of the speech that gave rise to the idea of the “Hastert Rule” told me so himself in a recent interview.

GOP strategist John Feehery was a top aide to former Speaker Dennis Hastert. He wrote a 2004 speech for Hastert in which he detailed some of the key things he’d learned as Speaker. One of these was the desirability of moving on legislation that is supported by a “majority of the majority.” Over time, this evolved — no one knows exactly how – into the “Hastert Rule.”

But Feehery told me in that interview that this was never the intention.

“I never used the phrase `Hastert Rule,’” Feehery said. “I don’t know where it came from. This was always meant to be situational advice, never a hard-and-fast rule.”

Immigration reform is an instructive example. Many Republicans believe that reform must pass for the long-term good of the party. If enough Republicans privately conclude that this is the case — even if they are unwilling to publicly support reform and vote for it — Boehner may well allow whatever emerges from the Senate to pass the House, even if it requires mostly Dem votes to do so. Conservatives want the supposed “Hastert Rule” in place to prevent this from happening. But if enough Republicans want reform, the “Hastert Rule” isn’t going to stop anything. The only thing that will determine whether reform passes is whether Republicans privately want it to — again, for the good of the party.

Indeed, in his interview with me, Feehery said the insistence on this imagined “Hastert Rule” risks being counterproductive for conservatives. It encourages ideological rigidity among them, which makes compromise with Dems even less likely, which in turn leaves Boehner no choice but to side with Dems against them when something must pass. This risks sidelining conservatives completely, as opposed to them participating in legislating and getting something in return for it.

“The bigger point for conservatives is that if you’re not going to be constructive and you’re going to vote against everything, Boehner has no choice but to vote with Democrats” at times, Feehery told me.

But, really, what does Feehery know about it? He’s only the author of the alleged Hastert Rule, after all.

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UPDATE: The Roll Call story reports that the Club for Growth and Heritage Action –and a number of other conservative leaders — are also behind the push for codification of the supposed “Hastert Rule,” so there’s real clout behind this idea. But again, the Hastert Rule doesn’t actually exist.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Greg Sargent | June 14, 2013