WHILE THE Senate this week wrangled over whether to modify its filibuster rules to limit partisan gridlock, the House leadership was invoking a more insidious form of gridlock to hold up comprehensive immigration reform. The so-called “Hastert rule” requires that no piece of legislation can come up for a vote without support from most members of the majority party. So, in today’s 234-to-201 Republican-controlled body, no measure can reach the floor unless it gets 118 Republican votes. Put another way, 117 Republicans — fewer than 27 percent of the House membership — can block any measure at all, even if it’s supported by the other 73 percent. In the upper chamber, senators have expressed alarm over filibuster rules that bottle up legislation unless 60 percent of the body votes to end debate. But the Senate, at least, allows disputed bills to sneak through if 60 percent of members support it; the House’s Hastert rule essentially means even 73 percent support may not be enough.
This isn’t something that the Framers of the Constitution intended. Instead, House rules have evolved to suit the fancy of various power brokers. The Hastert rule, for instance, dates back only to GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert, who oversaw the House from 1999 to 2007. That unwritten rule is now invoked by the most conservative House members to tie the hands of their own party’s speaker, John Boehner; he can’t effectively negotiate with either President Obama or Senate Democrats because he can’t promise that the more extreme half of his caucus will go along. Time and again, negotiations have appeared to produce common ground, only to have Boehner back out. Rather than point the finger at far-right members of his own party, Boehner covers up for his weakness by blaming the other side. Such face-saving rants pour an unnecessary barrelful of bile onto the political process.