The Hastert rule, the nuclear option and the filibuster, oh my!

July 11, 2013

If you're following Congress these days, you've probably heard a lot about the Hastert rule. Or the Senate nuclear option. Or the filibuster of this, that, or the other thing.

The fact that arcane procedural terminology is now at the forefront of the political conversation speaks volumes about the intense partisanship that has gripped Capitol Hill.

Former House speaker Dennis Hastert, for whom the "Hastert rule" is named. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images)
Former House speaker Dennis Hastert, for whom the "Hastert rule" is named. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images)

The most notable development in the House immigration debate so far has been Speaker John Boehner's vow to invoke the so-called Hastert rule by not bringing any immigration legislation to a vote that doesn't have majority backing in his conference. That virtually guarantees Democratic immigration reform advocates won't get all they are looking for in a House bill.

Over in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is set to convene a special caucus meeting on Thursday to discuss deploying the so-called “nuclear option" with regard to the Obama Administration's nominees for cabinet positions and agency posts. Utilizing the "nuclear option" would clear the way to end filibusters on those nominees with a simple majority.

Speaking of filibusters, we've been hearing about them a lot because as a tactical maneuvers, they've popped up with increased frequency in recent years. Just take a look at how often cloture has been invoked (cloture votes are used to end debate and, therefore, break filibusters) since 2007 as compared to years prior.

Why is Congress so partisan? In the House, look no further than how members have been elected. Eighty-five percent of candidates won in 2012 with more than 55 percent of the vote. And large majorities won with upward of 60 percent. That's not a recipe for compromise. It's a reflection of a polarized House map created by national redistricting plans over the past two decades. Members know where their bread is buttered, and it's almost never on the other side of the aisle.

What about the upper chamber? There, senators are voting along party lines with remarkable frequency too. And the chamber's once collegial atmosphere is not what it once was, thanks in part to a wave of tea party newcomers who have roiled the environment -- refusing to go along to get along. (See Cruz, Ted.)

The very specter of these procedural moves, of course, fuels further partisanship.

The danger for Senate Democrats looking to use the "nuclear option" now is that it opens the door for a future Republican-controlled Senate to reshape the rules to their advantage. And if the Hastert rule becomes the norm in big legislative debates in the House, it will become even more difficult to pass legislation, since 1) securing more than half the votes of the GOP conference is no small task for leadership and 2) it will produce more conservative bills with a smaller chance of winning approval from the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House.

Desperate times call for desperate measures? In Congress, partisan times seem to be calling for ever more partisan measures.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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