Even the Aide Who Coined the Hastert Rule Says the Hastert Rule Isn't Working

John Boehner is hamstrung by a stricture that a majority of the majority must back any bill. Would he be a stronger speaker if he collaborated with Democrats more, not less?

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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.

(Amusingly, Hastert, who is also now a lobbyist, disagrees. "If you start to rely on the minority to get the majority of your votes, then all of the sudden you're not running the shop anymore. I think that's what it comes down to," he told Roll Call in March. "It worked for me.")

Feehery posits that every speaker has to govern differently depending on the situation. He points to the example of former Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill, who, he notes, "pretty much let the Republicans run the floor in the first two years of the Reagan Presidency. ... O'Neill felt that the president should have the opportunity to put his program in place."

Intrigued by this, I emailed John Aloysius Farrell, O'Neill's biographer (and an Atlantic contributor). He replied:

[O'Neill's] problem was this: In those days the Democratic Party had a partisan majority but not an ideological majority. There were still many representatives from the South and the border states who had a D next to their name. ...

In the Reagan years, those Democrats from the south and west felt that they were under intense pressure back home, where the president was hugely popular.... Their constituents were conservative, loved Reagan and the D representatives saw themselves in dire trouble if they were painted as obstructionists. ...

So Tip could not run the House by the Hastert rule -- his southern and western Democrats were a minority, but would have raised holy divisive hell if he tried to keep Reagan's program off the floor. This was proven when the votes were indeed held, and Tip and his northern and midwestern and California liberals -- the majority of the majority -- lost on both tax and spending cuts.

If the Democrats wanted to keep the House, Tip had to keep those boll weevil Democrats in the caucus, and allow them to go home and campaign as enablers or supporters of Reagan, while at the same time satisfying his own partisan obligations and the demands of northern liberals that he put up a fight.

O'Neill did believe Reagan deserved to have his program voted on, Farrell said. But he also believed, as Feehery noted, that Reagan would inevitably overreach, benefiting Democrats politically. And that's what happened: Reagan tried to cut Social Security, and Democrats rode the issue to huge gains in the 1982 elections.

Like O'Neill, Boehner has a partisan majority that is often divided ideologically. He has a large number of members who need to vote against Democrat-backed legislation for political reasons, but might not mind seeing such legislation pass in the end -- and thus might not hold it against Boehner when he violates the Hastert rule. That is, they wouldn't depose him as speaker.

O'Neill was frequently humiliated by his divided caucus, just as Boehner is today. But he's now remembered as an effective and savvy liberal leader who embodied the art of compromise. If Boehner is looking for a model, maybe Hastert is the wrong speaker to emulate.