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.
The need to satisfy the most conservative 27 percent of the House yields legislation that practically no one wants, like the agricultural bill last week that removed all funding for food stamps while expanding farm subsidies, most of which go to major corporations. "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat," declared Representative Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, quoting the Bible to justify the stripping of food stamps.
The good news is that the House can overcome the Hastert rule without the convulsions that have marked the Senate's filibuster debate. The rule exists solely because Tea Party conservatives can threaten to remove Boehner as speaker if he fails to adhere to it. But more reasonable Republicans can play the same game: By threatening to team up with Democrats to let majority-supported legislation go forward, mainstream Republicans can pressure Boehner to stand up to the far right.
It would be the right thing for the country, and good politics for mainstream Republicans. If Congress faces reelection in 2014 without having dealt with immigration reform or gun control, or having made any progress on a long-term budget agreement, Democrats will be able to nationalize the election around those issues. No doubt, Republicans will try to blame Obama. But Obama has visibly reached out for compromise on these issues. Ironically, if any Republicans are to pay a price for their party's obstruction, it won't be the obstructors, who represent ultra-conservative constituencies, but mainstream Republicans from more moderate environs.
They should try to remove the Hastert rule — before the Hastert rule removes them.