House Speaker John Boehner has a tough job -- so tough that Democrats have taken to pitying him. "I feel sorry for the speaker," Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, recently confessed. New York magazine described Boehner as "one of the most beleaguered powerful people in Washington," and quoted one of his closest allies, former Rep. Steve LaTourette, as being unable to fathom what Boehner likes about his job. There's a rumor going around that Boehner's preparing to chuck it all and retire.
It's not hard to see why: Of 234 Republicans, just 20 percent are reliably loyal to the speaker, a Washington Post analysis recently demonstrated. More than half have gone against him on two or more of this year's biggest votes. Boehner has also suffered a series of humiliating failed floor votes, from his "Plan B" on the fiscal cliff to the recent debacle of the farm bill. Of nine bills that have passed the current Congress and been enacted, four of them did not have the support of a majority of House Republicans, and made it through the House with mostly Democratic votes instead.
Those votes violated the "Hastert rule," an informal guideline formulated by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House. Hastert pledged in 2003 not to allow votes on bills that didn't have the support of "the majority of the majority," meaning more than half of the Republican members of Congress. Democrats -- led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- decried the move at the time as an overly partisan attempt to marginalize their influence.
Today, Boehner's violations of the Hastert rule have angered conservatives who see themselves as the ones marginalized by his ability to get around their demands. Under pressure, Boehner has repeatedly reassured them that he won't break the rule again when it comes to immigration reform. Something resembling the bill that has passed the Senate would likely pass the House if it came to a floor vote, with a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans in support. But Boehner has made clear he won't allow that to happen.
Back when the Hastert rule first became a thing, a Hastert spokesman named John Feehery defended it to the Washington Post. "If you pass major bills without the majority of the majority, then you tend not to be a long-term speaker," Feehery said, adding, "I think [Hastert] was prudent to listen to his members."
That's what the Hastert rule is really about, Feehery, now a lobbyist and consultant, told me recently -- political survival. It's just common sense: The speaker is elected by a majority vote of his caucus; if he does things a majority of his caucus doesn't like, they can vote him out.
Feehery actually wrote the speech in which Hastert laid out the rule that bears his name. He coined the catchy phrase "majority of the majority." And now he thinks Boehner ought to ditch the Hastert rule.
Feehery outlined his thinking in a blog post in January. In a recent interview, he elaborated: Given the current "ungovernable" state of the House GOP caucus, he told me, Boehner must balance the risk to his own standing with the "larger reputational risk" to the Republican Party of things like, say, blocking the Violence Against Women Act -- which would have happened had Boehner not violated the Hastert rule to get it through with the votes of just 38 percent of his members.