Scandal Kills the ‘Hastert Rule’; Congressional Gridlock Expected to Survive

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Members Of Congress Unveil Portrait Of Former Speaker Hastert
The Hastert Rule's friends and family, in happier times.Photo: Chip Somodevilla/2009 Getty Images

Last week Congress lost the Hastert Rule, a murky dictum beloved by many, when former House speaker Dennis Hastert was indicted for violating federal banking laws and lying to the FBI, forever linking the term to an embarrassing scandal over hush-money allegations. The rule was nine years old.

Before reports emerged last week that Hastert was allegedly paying a former student to keep quiet about sexual abuse, the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House usually only came up when someone was invoking the Hastert Rule, which stipulated that bills would only be brought up for a vote if they had the support of a majority of the speaker’s party. The maneuver further limited the power of the minority party and was blamed for many classic moments in Washington gridlock, such as the October 2013 government shutdown and the House’s failure to pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill.

The Hastert Rule was born during a 2006 press conference on an immigration reform bill, when the speaker was asked if he would consider turning to Democrats to advance the bill. Hastert said, vaguely, that relying on the minority party is “something I would not generally do.” Somehow that offhand remark morphed into a “rule” — though most people acknowledge that it’s merely a guideline. Hastert himself called the term a “misnomer” in October 2013. “Lookit, the Hastert rule didn’t exist,” he said. “What happened is you lined up 218 votes.” The concept dates back to the ‘80s, and according to a New York Times tally, it’s been broken by House speakers from both parties about 40 times since 1991.

Nevertheless, in recent years House Republicans have often threatened to oust John Boehner from the speakership for violating the Hastert Rule (among other reasons), though he, too, insists it does not exist. “Listen: It was never a rule to begin with,” Boehner said in 2013. “And certainly my prerogative – my intention is to always pass bills with strong Republican support.” But what ultimately killed the rule was the fact that, from now on, anyone who uses it will be subjected to extremely nerdy Twitter jokes:

The Hastert Rule is survived by the term “the majority of the majority.” While that’s kind of clunky, members of Congress find it preferable to working with their colleagues across the aisle.