The Ghost of Dennis Hastert is haunting House Speaker John Boehner.
Dennis Hastert isn’t dead, of course, but his speakership went to join the Choir Invisible back in 2007 . And yet the standards and practices of the Hastert era still handcuff Boehner today.
The problem is the Hastert Rule, an informal principle of Republican speakers that began under Newt Gingrich, and was made explicit under Hastert. The idea is simple: no bill will be brought to the floor that lacks majority support among the majority caucus.
That means that a plan to avoid the fiscal cliff that earns every Democrat and 49 percent of Republicans in the House can’t come to a vote, because a majority of Republicans oppose it.
The Hastert Rule is a principle, of course, not a rule. Boehner doesn’t have to follow it. But ignoring the Hastert rule could come with a steep price for the speaker; it could force him to choose between his gavel and his country.
The Origins of the Hastert Rule
The Hastert Rule was an informal principle under Gingrich, but it really came to light under Hastert. To understand why, it’s important to remember just how Hastert got his gavel in the first place.
Hastert was never supposed to be speaker. Newt Gingrich had steered the party to the majority in 1994, and appeared set to lead for as long as their majority endured. However, in 1998, the Republicans suffered significant setbacks in the House, not losing the majority, but narrowing it significantly. Gingrich, who had been beset by ethical problems and a growing reputation as a horrible person, resigned his seat in the House, allowing the GOP to get a fresh start going into the new term.
The obvious heirs to Gingrich were House Majority Leader and future Tea Party zealot Dick Armey, R-Texas, or House Majority Whip and future convicted felon Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Both Armey and DeLay were seen as bigger jerks than Gingrich; even the House GOP recognized that they were too hated to lead. Instead, they turned to Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., the chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
Now — funny story — the unpopular Republican House that just lost a bunch of seats decided that the best way to win over America would be to impeach then-President Bill Clinton during the lame-duck session. As you likely recall, Clinton was impeached because he lied about a consensual extramarital affair. Well, it turned out that Livingston himself was engaged in an extramarital affair. He formally withdrew from consideration the same day Clinton was impeached by the House; ironically, the impeachment bid cost Livingston his job, while Clinton ultimately kept his.
After all this, the speakership basically fell to Hastert, the bland Deputy Majority Whip. Hastert wasn’t part of Gingrich’s revolutionary squad, and he wasn’t seen as one of the main drivers of Gingrich conservatism. It may not be fair to say he was a figurehead, an acceptable face for the real leaders, Armey and DeLay, but that has certainly been said, repeatedly, by pretty much everyone.
Needless to say, figureheads accept constraints on their power, and the Hastert Rule was a biggie. Speakers have sweeping power to bring bills to the floor; agreeing not to if his caucus disagreed essentially gave a minority of the House a veto over any legislation.
Boehner is not the figurehead Hastert was, but he’s still mistrusted by movement conservatives. He doesn’t have the bona fides of Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., or House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Boehner has often been seen by Republicans as too quick to deal, too willing to concede.
Republican activists are already calling for Boehner’s head, even before any actual concessions are made; Boehner simply doesn’t have the support in his party to buck a majority of his caucus.
This makes live exceptionally difficult for the Speaker. House Democrats hold the upper hand in negotiations, and whatever you think of John Boehner, it’s pretty clear he knows it. Democrats strongly suspect that there are at least enough Republican votes to pass an extension of the Bush tax cuts on income less than $250,000, and believe that if Boehner brought the bill to a vote, it would pass.
Unfortunately, if Boehner brings up the bill to a vote in December, it would almost certainly lack the support of most Republicans. Indeed, that’s why Boehner’s initial proposal to President Obama extended forever all of the Bush tax cuts — because that’s what his caucus wants.
If no vote is taken, though, it’s a virtual certainty that we go over the cliff, at least until January. That could roil markets and slow the economy, even if a fix is found next year.
The patriotic thing for Boehner to do would be to find a bill that can earn a majority of the House, even if that majority is mostly made up of Democrats. This would keep the recovery on track, and avoid the risk of a slowdown or recession. If he does that, though, it’s likely that Boehner will lose his gavel just two years after he got it. This is the choice Boehner faces: the good of the country, or his political career. Unfortunately, knowing how most politicians operate, it’s pretty clear which one he’ll choose.
Image Credit: Donkey Hotey