Last night’s House vote to approach disaster aid for communities hit by Hurricane Sandy may turn out to be one of the signal moments of President Obama’s second term. The significance lies not in the bill itself — though obviously, if you are reading this from the ruins of your flattened house, your mileage may vary — but what it says about the power of the crazy caucus of the House Republicans.
Here is the central dilemma in American politics since 2010: You need to enact laws even to do very basic things like not crash the world economy for no reason. You can’t enact a law without passing it through the House. The House is controlled by Republicans. And many if not most of these Republicans appear to be stark raving mad — which is to say, not merely ideologically extreme but unable to rationally connect means with ends, as evidenced by such things as the Plan B fiasco.
The crucial piece of this dilemma is the "Hastert Rule,” coined by former House Speaker Denny Hastert, which holds that all bills passing the House must have, in addition to the support of 218 members required for passage, the support of a majority of Republicans. Under the Hastert Rule, you couldn’t pass a bill with 118 Democrats and 100 Republicans. It was basically a codification of the general idea that the party’s most conservative members had a veto over the entire process, that the leadership couldn’t just cut them out of a deal.
The Hastert Rule was part of what drove the negotiations over the Bush tax cuts to the very end — most Republicans simply wouldn’t vote for anything that appeared to raise taxes, even if the alternative was even higher taxes. Ultimately, as the expiration deadline approached, John Boehner had to violate that rule and pass a Senate-backed deal with mostly Democratic votes.
It looked like it might be a one-off, a panicked response to the unique circumstances of a looming automatic tax hike and breathless media coverage. But Boehner did it again last night. On the Sandy bill, a mere 49 Republicans voted aye, against 179 nays.
Now why, you might ask, would Republicans tolerate the passage of a bill they overwhelmingly oppose? They didn’t have to pass it — they could have kept it off the floor and only brought a bill that had their party’s support, or possibly no bill at all. It appears they decided the negative publicity, and the damage to the party’s brand, outweighed their own preferences. House Republicans wanted to vote no so they could signal opposition to their own base, and protect themselves against a possible primary challenge, but they didn’t care enough to actually stop the bill.
The unanswered question here is whether they care at all, or how much they really care. If it’s all for show, Republicans can keep going on this way, using Democrats to pass bills they want to pass (or can’t afford the consequences of blocking) but don’t want to go on record supporting. On the other hand, it may just be a temporary balm. Perhaps Republicans have been told they can’t afford to drive the party into a public confrontation, so they quietly accede to compromises, while frustration builds beneath the surface.
The next such event is the debt ceiling vote. This seems like the perfect setup for another let’s-forget-the–Hastert Rule vote. Republican elites are increasingly coalescing around the view that they just have to raise the thing. (Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity is the latest right-wing group to throw in the towel.) The natural solution is to just let the bill pass with mainly Democratic support and give a bunch of angry speeches — the way the debt ceiling used to work.
Then what? Politico reports that Republicans may stage a government shutdown to let frustrated conservatives work out some anger issues. (“We might need to [shut down the government] for member-management purposes — so they have an endgame and can show their constituents they’re fighting.”)
Governing in the greatest nation on Earth!