The Hastert Rule was never a rule.
It was a guideline to future speakers, a warning really about how to manage a fractious group of members of the majority, no matter what party they are in.
Denny Hastert, my former boss, believed that you couldn’t rely on the minority to get things done if you were in the majority and he worked very, very hard to get his conference united on most policy goals.
In fact, the former coach from Illinois didn’t just want the majority of his majority to be with him. He wanted his majority to be the majority in the House.
It wasn’t a rule. You don’t enact rules like that and trip yourself up.
Hastert also believed against setting “too many mousetraps” that you could potentially catch yourself in.
When John Boehner became speaker, much noise was made about the Hastert rule.
The left predictably went crazy on the concept because it marginalized Nancy Pelosi. If you don’t count on Democrats to bail you out, well then, there is very little you need to ask of them.
I have written in the past that the Hastert rule was only a guideline and that every speaker has to do things differently given the dynamics of in the House.
And I believe that. I believed that John Boehner had no choice but to get bipartisan support on big bills like extending the debt limit, enacting the fiscal cliff and passing the so-called cromnibus.
But by allowing the Republican conference to vote their “conscience” on big bills, a couple of things happened.
First, members of the Republican majority stopped acting like a majority. They started acting like they were members of the minority, launching protest votes instead of voting to govern.
They did this because they wanted to avoid potential primary battles, but mostly they did it because they didn’t want to get grief back home and from unseemly characters like Mark Levin.
Second, a lot of pressure was put on the 30 or 40 Republicans who would vote with the speaker to get things done.
It’s hard to be the guy who has to be responsible and govern when all of your colleagues are partying with the nay caucus. These members get hit even harder back home by the conservative grievance industry.
It isn’t fun to be a Peter King or a Hal Rogers or a Devin Nunes or a Charlie Dent, Members who are trying to do the right thing for the country and for their constituents and follow their leaders by taking the tough votes.
It is harder when most of your colleagues secretly cheer you on but publicly vote the other way.
Third, this dynamic made Boehner seem a lot weaker than he really was within his conference.
The speaker would often get standing ovations in conference meetings. He was a frequent guest of members from all over the country, where he would raise them tons of money and put on a good show. There was no rival to Boehner within the conference who could beat him in a head to head matchup. When it came to a secret ballot, he was unbeatable.
But that’s not how the public saw it.
They saw the right-wing peanut gallery call for his head. They would hear Brent “The Bozo” Bozell call for his resignation over and over again. And that inspired Mark Meadows to offer a non-privileged motion to vacate the chair, a nonsensical resolution unprecedented in House history.
Boehner seemed isolated because his members kept voting against him.
And that’s the bottom line. They were voting against him even when in their heart of hearts, they wanted him to stick around.
Ben Franklin once said about the American revolutionaries, “we can hang together or we can hang separately.”
By not hanging together on tough votes, the Republican conference hung John Boehner out to dry.
One final note: When Republicans split on votes and Democrats hang together, the public perception is that the Democrats win and the Republicans lose.
Hastert, as a former coach, hated to lose. And he hated the perception that his team was losing.
Whoever the next speaker turns out to be, they should keep in mind the Hastert Rule.
It’s not a rule; it’s a guideline. But it’s a pretty good way to keep the team from losing.
John Feehery publishes his Feehery Theory blog at http://www.thefeeherytheory.com/.