How Bipartisan Legislation Gets Strangled


How Bipartisan Legislation Gets Strangled

Blog Post

By No Labels

How Bipartisan Legislation Gets Strangled

When Congress took up tax reform last year—the largest overhaul of the tax system in three decades—it passed the Ways and Means Committee and the House floor without a single Democratic vote.

How can landmark legislation pass without any bipartisan support? It has less to do with people or political parties than it does the rules that govern the House, which are designed to favor the party in power and effectively lock the opposition out of the process.

Few bills can even make it to the floor unless the bulk of the majority party supports them. There is nothing encouraging the majority party to work across the aisle, and the minority party has very little input on what comes to the floor.

The Hastert Rule

To understand how all that works, you need to understand something known as the “Hastert Rule.” Named for former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert, who popularized the informal rule, it says that a majority of the majority party must support a bill in order for it to be brought to the floor.

For example, if Republicans hold 238 seats as they do now, no bill can come to the floor unless a majority of those Republicans, which is 120 lawmakers, support it. Even if the bill has majority support in the House when Republican and Democratic votes are counted, it will not be brought to the floor unless that 120 threshold is met. “Little more than 25 percent of the House could in some instances act to kill a bill that the vast majority supported,” Republican former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia wrote in The Hill.

So the tax bill, which had broad Republican support in the House, sailed through. But a bill that might draw votes from 150 Democrats and 80 Republicans—enough to pass the House, where 218 votes will carry a bill—is unlikely to get to the floor because a majority of the Republican conference does not support it.

The rule was embraced to ensure that the Speaker, who controls the flow of legislation on the House floor, represented the bulk of his or her conference when executing that privilege. It is more of a norm than an actual rule, and it has been selectively ignored from time to time. But the overall result is that the Hastert Rule has been murderous to bipartisan cooperation and Congressional productivity.

“The reality we face today is a legislative body entirely paralyzed by partisan division,” Davis wrote. “The Hastert Rule forces whoever holds the Speaker’s gavel to ice the other party out of the legislative process. In essence, reforms born to correct an old problem have created something even worse: a system that strangles any bipartisan impulse.”

New House, New Rules

Yet there is a way to fix this. Changing the House rules in the new Congress next year could change the culture and procedures in the House, making it more bipartisan and more productive. No Labels has set out to do exactly that.

One big way to improve the system is to change how the Speaker is elected. Rather than a simple majority of the house (218 of 435 lawmakers), the rule should specify that 60 percent of members are needed to elect the Speaker (261 of 435). This would virtually ensure that lawmakers from both parties are needed to put a Speaker in power, meaning the Speaker would be beholden to both parties.

That would dramatically change how the House is run. The new 60-percent Speaker would have to change the way bills are brought to the floor—the Hastert Rule would no longer work—and the changes would all but require bipartisan cooperation to get things done. No Labels will encourage lawmakers in both parties to support this change and others that can make the House more bipartisan and more productive. We are also asking our supporters to get involved. Whatever the outcome of November’s election, we’ll have a new House next year. That House needs new rules.



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