April 11, 2013
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), pressed on the “Hastert Rule” that Republicans would only bring legislation to the floor if it had the support of the majority of House Republicans, said only that “It was never a rule to begin with.

That’s quite right. It was, in very different circumstances, something that Republican members of the House insisted on when Dennis Hastert was speaker and George W. Bush was president.

What’s happened now is that the political context is totally different (with a Democratic Senate and Barack Obama in the White House), and so Republicans want something different from their speaker. Mainly, what they seem to want is solved by the “Boehner Rule” that involves having the Senate act first on most things. Why? Because it’s extremely difficult for Republicans right now to put together a majority on the House floor for any kind of serious legislation — because there’s a “purist” group that has no interest in voting for compromises that could become law, and another group terrified of voting against that purist group and therefore being labeled as traitorous, ultra-liberal “RINOs.”

Now, since the whole idea here is to prevent terrified Republicans from having to cast tough votes, it’s highly unlikely that reporters are going to get those Republicans from admitting that they’re happy with Boehner. But it’s really an arrangement that works out well for all of them. Moderates get to vote for popular measures, usually along with bipartisan Senate majorities. The true believers get to complain about sellouts and RINOs — they love doing that! And most conservatives get to vote with those true believers without having to actually defeat popular legislation.

More generally: good speakers will adjust their strategies to accommodate the members of their conference. Speakers aren’t all-powerful by any means; they certainly are important, but their influence entirely depends on keeping everyone (on their side of the aisle) happy. And the evidence so far is that John Boehner is actually a pretty good speaker.