On January 3rd when the new Congress is sworn in, there will be 201 Democrats and 234 Republicans. If John Boehner is re-elected Speaker, he will likely continue to run the House according to the Hastert Rule. (See NYT series of postings, Debt Reckoning, see the posting at Dec 12 at 12:32pm.) The Hastert Rule means that the Republican Speaker will not bring to a vote any bill unless it has the support of a majority of Republicans.
Half of the 234 Republicans is 117, so the 117 most conservative members of the House, only 27% of the total House membership, can stop any compromise legislation that has been negotiated with the Senate and the White House. That’s why Boehner has such a hard time compromising with President Obama.
For comparison, the much-criticized and abused Senate filibuster rule allows a minority 41% of the Senate to stop a bill. So the Hastert Rule actually allows legislation to be stopped by a much smaller minority that the filibuster. In fact, if the House were even more closely divided, say with 218 Republicans and 217 Democrats, the Hastert Rule would give veto power to just 109 Republicans or 25.06% of the House.
But just like the filibuster isn’t required by the constitution, neither is the Hastert Rule. The House doesn’t have to be run that way. A bipartisan leadership could look for support from a majority of the entire house, not just Republicans. That would mean no bill would need the far left or the far right, but simply a majority in the middle.
The Hastert Rule is named for Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Reoublican Speaker of the House who followed Newt Gingrich as Speaker in 1998. Whereas Gingrich ruled the House largely by force of personality, Hastert kept the Speakership by agreeing to never go against the majority will of his own Republican caucus. Thus he was less a strong leader than a figurehead. Many say the House was actually dominated by Republican majority whip Tom Delay during Hastert’s Speakership.
So it is Boehner’s decision to continue to run the House by the Hastert Rule that’s causing Washington not to be able to function. There is a working centrist group of lawmakers who could make things happen if they were actually allowed to vote on the needed legislation. But they need to find the courage to work across party lines in order to do so.