The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, the `Hastert Rule’ isn’t supposed to be Holy writ

More than three dozen conservative House Republicans have sent a letter to speaker John Boehner warning him against bringing any gun legislation to the floor that doesn’t have the support of a majority of the GOP caucus. Other conservatives are expressing similar sentiments about immigration.

This is a reference to what House conservatives have been calling the “Hastert Rule,” under which nothing is ever supposed to be allowed to pass the House unless it passes with a majority of Republicans. Steve Benen sums it up: “Republicans shouldn’t even consider bills if they’re dependent on Democratic votes to pass — the real power belongs in the hands of the House GOP’s far-right rank and file.” Needless to say, this makes it hard to make legislative progress.

So perhaps it’s worth noting that one of the people most responsible for creating the idea of the “Hastert Rule” never intended it as a rule at all.

GOP strategist John Feehery, who was a top aide to former Speaker Dennis Hastert, wrote a 2004 speech for Hastert in which he set forth a number of things he’d learned as Speaker, among them the desirability of moving on legislation that is supported by a “majority of the majority.” Over time, this evolved into the “Hastert Rule.”

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

The guideline is meant to ensure a Speaker’s survival over time, but it’s not absolute. “The job of the Speaker is to expedite legislation,” Feehery says, “but to keep his job as Speaker, he or she has to make sure he or she is pleasing a majority of the majority.”

So let’s rename this the “Hastert Guideline.” Indeed, according to the New York Times, Hastert himself broke this rule a number of times during his tenure as Speaker from 1999-2007. During this Congress, Speaker Boehner has departed from the Hastert Guideline a few times, including on votes on the fiscal cliff deal, the Violence Against Women Act, and on aide to victims of Hurricane Sandy. Boehner himself recently said, “it was never a rule.” And he’s right.

The idea of the Hastert Rule, of course, is rooted in a desire of conservatives to prevent Boehner from deviating from their orthodoxy. The use of the Hastert Guideline as an enforcement mechanism is also rooted in fear.

“Conservatives are terrified, and they should be, that if Boehner decides to throw in with 70 Republicans and 150 Democats, they have no voice anymore,” Feehery says. “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” on must-pass legislation. Adds Feehry: “It makes it harder for the conservative position to prevail.”

If anything is going to get done on guns or immigration or perhaps even on the debt limit this summer, the so-called Hastert Rule may have to get broken. So let’s junk this idea of a Hastert Rule. It is not Holy writ.