A fake rule gums up real progress

There are no genuine cannibals in the United States House of Representatives, but the phrase “bite the hand that feeds” comes to life again and again. Whether due to the House’s size, volatile two-year election cycles, or political diversity, rarely a day goes by without one firebrand or another scolding their own leadership and issuing ultimatums. Liberal commentators today like to blame this on the Tea Party, but it’s hardly a new phenomenon. During Tip O’Neill’s tenure as speaker, the conservative “boll weevil” Democrats were a constant source of irritation and frequently a force that divided their party’s caucus.

The most recent back-biting revolves around the “Hastert rule,” a standard named after former speaker Dennis Hastert. It posits that any bill brought to the House floor should win at least half of the votes available in the majority party. Last week, several Republicans insisted that GOP Speaker John Boehner honor the supposed rule during the immigration debate. That would require support from 117 of the 234 GOPers for any bill that sees the light of day.

Setting aside the difficulty of navigating the complex policy choices of immigration reform, this makes Boehner’s job tougher. Naturally, the press has been quick to play up the supposed dilemma of whether the speaker would break the rule. That makes a good story, but not much more.


As Bill Murray might say, “Actually, it’s more of a guideline than a rule,” and in the past it was often just a negotiation tactic. Any invocation of the Hastert rule in the current debate, either by reporters or a few House Republicans, has more to do with hype and self-promotion — and reveals a lack of understanding of the history, processes, and politics that make Congress work.

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There’s nothing new about the underlying idea: Any speaker, past or present, would be reluctant to push legislation opposed by a majority of his or her own caucus. Discussion about waiving the rule is silly, since it isn’t written down anywhere. And as it turns out, not even Hastert was a faithful adherent to the Hastert rule. From 1999 to 2007, he brought at least a dozen bills to the floor that violated it. During the past six months, John Boehner has done so four times.

But even this comparison is beside the point, because the two presided under significantly different political structures. Hastert’s most strident pronouncements on the rule came during a time when Republicans also controlled the Senate and the White House. His message was directed at them — not his own House members. His objective was to press his own party leadership to shape legislation that would appeal to most Republicans in the House.

Today, the House is an island of Republican control. Boehner can only dream of the luxury of one-party rule. Under divided government, passing laws requires the cooperation of Democratic Senate leadership and the signature of President Obama. That fundamental requirement for some compromise means that most conservative House Republicans are certain to vote against any significant bill that ultimately gets signed into law. And with a bill this complex, any member worthy of the title “politician” can come up with a reason to vote “no.”

Without knowing key details of the final product, calculating a vote total is all but impossible. John Boehner knows this. The Senate leadership knows this. Even most reporters know this. Yet a handful of Republican congressmen continue to insist that the speaker guarantee that a bill yet to be negotiated will win a precise number of GOP votes for passage.


They should note that 2012 wasn’t exactly a banner year for Republicans. Performance among Hispanic voters was terrible, and failure to address immigration reform was a big part of the problem. The party can ignore the issue and hope time and events make it go away, or do its best now and move on. In fact, the only realistic path forward is for House Republicans to pass a bill that strongly represents their values, negotiate the best possible “conference agreement” with the Senate, and then put the final package to a vote. This is not to say that you or I will like the final product. But it represents the most practical process for getting a bill passed.

Speaker Boehner is no happier about the situation than any other Republican. But issuing unrealistic demands about unwritten rules that have never been followed won’t make the choice easier — and probably won’t accomplish much, either. Casting a harsh light on Republican leadership, however, will almost always get your name on the front page — whether you are a reporter or just a cannibal.

John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.