Just the Facts: Hastert Rule

By Emma Petasis
November 6, 2015 | Blog

It was November of 2004, and the most important intelligence legislation since the PATRIOT Act was about to be brought to the House floor. Passed by the Senate and approved by the president, the bill already had the support of a majority in the House, and was just a vote and signature away from becoming law — with one small problem: Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and a sizable faction of House Republicans didn’t support it.

To block the legislation, Hastert called up an obscure and controversial House tradition – he refused to let the measure come to the floor for a vote, claiming he needed support from “a majority of the majority” before it happened. This maneuver, now referred to as the “Hastert Rule,” has subsequently become a normal practice in the House, empowering the speaker and majority party’s control over the legislative agenda.

What is the Hastert Rule?

The Hastert Rule requires any given bill to have support from the “majority of the majority” caucus before being brought to the floor by the speaker. More informal guideline than ironclad law, this rule has traditionally served as an unspoken gatekeeper that allows the majority to maintain control over the agenda in the House.

A common sense rule, the House speaker has historically checked in advance that a bill has broad support from his or her caucus. After all, speakers are elected by their caucus, and if they go against the will of their party, they tend not to stay speaker for long. Though the term was popularized after Hastert brought it to national attention – and routinely defended it – the general idea has been around for much longer.

Hastert’s “Rule” is largely a rule of thumb: sometimes difficult to enforce, and often broken. Hastert himself has denied the existence of a spoken rule, but still maintains that it is politically dangerous to repeatedly go against the will of your own caucus.

Is the Hastert rule always followed?

Sometimes the political landscape or the urgency of a controversial bill requires maneuvering around this principle. Former Speaker John Boehner, for example, only had a minority of Republican support when averting the latest government shutdown. NAFTA, a landmark trade agreement ratified under a Democratic Clinton administration, passed the Democratic House without a majority of House Democrats. Tip O’Neill, Democratic speaker during the Republican Reagan Administration, regularly allowed minority input on procedural matters and actively sought support from his colleagues across the aisle even when his own party preferred otherwise.

What do opponents and proponents of the Hastert rule say?

Opponents of the Hastert rule argue that limiting legislative actions to (in the worst case scenario) 50% of 50% of one congressional chamber is antithetical to the very idea of democracy, let alone the ideas of national interest or bipartisanship. If an unspoken rule can empower for example 25% of the House to determine which bills can and can’t be debated on the floor, the opponents say, it’s tyranny of the minority.

Proponents of the Hastert rule argue that it’s common sense for the speaker to respect the will of his or her party, because it’s ultimately the members of that party who select the speaker. Ceding power to the other side, in a partisan sense, is not something majority party members desire in a leader.

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