Dennis Hastert: ‘There Is No Hastert Rule’

The former House speaker disowns his eponymous rule.

National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Oct. 3, 2013, 6:10 a.m.

Former House Speak­er Den­nis Hastert says the fam­ous — or in­fam­ous — rule that bears his name doesn’t ac­tu­ally ex­ist. “There really wasn’t a ‘Hastert Rule,’ ” the longest-serving Re­pub­lic­an speak­er, who is now a lob­by­ist and con­sult­ant, told Na­tion­al Journ­al in a phone in­ter­view Wed­nes­day even­ing.

The Hastert Rule, as it’s be­come known, is more of a self-im­posed stand­ard that says House lead­ers shouldn’t al­low a vote on a bill un­less it has the sup­port of the ma­jor­ity of their own party. The rule has been cited as the reas­on Speak­er John Boehner won’t bring up a clean con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to re­open the gov­ern­ment, even though it prob­ably has the 218 votes needed to pass, as well as the reas­on Con­gress can’t pass im­mig­ra­tion re­form, new gun-con­trol laws, or much else.

If Boehner were only will­ing to break the Hastert Rule more of­ten, the think­ing goes, the pos­sib­il­it­ies would be end­less. Of course, that’s prob­ably not go­ing to hap­pen, but either way, Hastert says don’t blame him.

“That was a mis­nomer at a press con­fer­ence. One time they asked me about im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion, why don’t I just use Demo­crat votes? I said, well I’m nev­er go­ing to not have a ma­jor­ity of my own party go along with me. If you do that, then you’re not us­ing your own policy. And [the press] blew that up as the Hastert Rule. The Hastert Rule, really, was: If you don’t have 218 votes, you didn’t bring the bill to the floor,” he ex­plained.

Asked by a sur­prised re­port­er to con­firm that he, Den­nis Hastert, thinks there is no rule named after him, the former speak­er replied: “There is no Hastert Rule, no.”

Still, when asked if Boehner should try to pass a clean CR by break­ing the rule here­to­fore known by Hastert’s name, the former speak­er said his suc­cessor should not. “I would be very care­ful with Speak­er Boehner; I would make sure that he had a ma­jor­ity of his con­fer­ence on board with him,” he said.

In­deed, the “ma­jor­ity of the ma­jor­ity” prin­ciple was in place long be­fore Hastert — he just put a name to it, in­ten­tion­ally or oth­er­wise. In today’s Wash­ing­ton, even Hastert’s former aides think the con­tro­ver­sial rule may need to be made more flex­ible. But Hastert him­self warned Boehner in Janu­ary against break­ing his non-rule too many times. “Here is the prob­lem. Maybe you can do it once, maybe you can do it twice, but when start mak­ing deals when you have to get Demo­crats to pass the le­gis­la­tion, you are not in power any­more,” he told a con­ser­vat­ive ra­dio host in Janu­ary.

For his part, the former speak­er re­frained from cri­ti­ciz­ing Boehner or any­one else in Wash­ing­ton, say­ing in­stead that politi­cians need to do more com­prom­ising.

By way of ex­ample, he told a story about a budget im­passe late in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion when House and Sen­ate ne­go­ti­at­ors were about $100 bil­lion apart from each oth­er and dead­locked. Clin­ton was on a trip to Africa and out of pock­et, but Hastert was told he would fi­nally get a chance to speak with the pres­id­ent, who was in Tur­key, the next morn­ing at 10:00 loc­al time. That made it 2 a.m. in Wash­ing­ton. So Hastert, from his of­fice in the Cap­it­ol, dialed the White House switch­board and was patched through to Clin­ton, sit­ting in the back of a lim­ousine in Ank­ara, 10,000 miles away.

The pres­id­ent asked what Hastert wanted (and here, the former speak­er does his best Clin­ton im­pres­sion). Hastert told him a 1 per­cent across-the-board hair­cut. Clin­ton said that’s too much and offered 0.25 per­cent in­stead. Hastert coun­ter­offered and so on, un­til they settled on .86 per­cent, and that was that. “The mor­al of the story is: We sat down — well, not ac­tu­ally, he was so far away — and we got the job done,” Hastert says.

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