Are the Days of the Hastert Rule Numbered? Some Caution in Reading the House

Most Congress watchers yesterday quickly noted the remarkable House vote to pass the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA): For the third time this year, the House passed an important bill over the objections of a majority of the majority party. Another “Hastert Rule violation,” many reporters correctly observed.  (Is it a good sign that House procedural speak is now lingua franca of the Capitol press corps? Next thing you know, Hollywood will be making Oscar-winning films about the 19th century House….Oh wait….)

Observers noted that the leadership brought the VAWA bill to the floor (knowing the GOP majority would be rolled on final passage) as a calculated move to repair damage done to the party’sbrand name in the last election. As the Los Angeles Times reported, many GOP strategists “feared that keeping the bill in limbo could expose the party to complaints they were hostile to women.”

I think the coverage of the VAWA bill has been right on the mark. Still, we should be cautious in writing the Hastert Rule’s obituary. Some considerations:

First, as many reporters noted, the substance of the yesterday’s bill mattered. Concern about the party’s electoral reputation likely helped to encourage the GOP to bring the bill to the floor (on a nearly unanimous procedural vote). We see some evidence of that concern in the makeup of the sixty Republicans who broke ranks to vote against the conservatives’ alternative bill: Roughly sixty percent of them hailed from blue states won by Obama in 2012. (Note: GOP women were more likely to stick with their conservative brethren on that substitute vote, with roughly 80 percent of the GOP women favoring the more limited bill.)  Moreover, on final passage, nearly three-quarters of the Republicans who voted with the Democrats hailed from blue states. I think it’s reasonable to expect that on other electorally-salient bills this Congress we might see the leadership allow party splitting measures on the floor, letting the chamber median work its will in favor of passage. As many others have noted, immigration reform could provide another such opportunity. In short, the terrain for future Hastert rule violations might be quite limited.

Second, keep in mind that all three of the Hastert Rule violations occurred on legislative measures already cleared by the Senate. Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden negotiated the fiscal cliff bill that was passed 89-8 with broad bipartisan support. Hurricane Sandy relief was first cleared by the Senate on a (narrower) bipartisan vote. And the Senate had also already endorsed the more expansive version of the VAWA bill, with a majority of Senate GOP joining every Democrat in voting for the bill. The support of Republican senators (albeit to varying degrees) for Democratic measures makes it far harder for the Speaker to stick with his conservative conference majority. Instead, he offers them a vote to establish their conservative bona fides and then allows the Democrats to win the day. Split party control seems to limit the viability of the Hastert Rule, at least on those few measures on which Senate Democrats can attract GOP support to prevent a filibuster. Ironically, the new Boehner Rule of “Make the Senate Go First” (insert saltier language for full effect) undermines the Hastert Rule. Given the difficulty Boehner faces in assembling a chamber majority without Democratic votes on bigger issues of the day, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see this periodic scuttling of the majority of Boehner’s majority.

Finally, yesterday’s vote helps us to better identify the far right flank of the House GOP. Here, I consider the far right of the conference those Republicans who voted against waiving the debt limit for three months, against Hurricane Sandy relief, and against the VAWA bill. That group sums to 26 GOP. Given 232 House Republicans, Boehner can’t bring party-favored bills to the floor without moving exceedingly far to the right. That’s helps to explain why Boehner insists on letting the Senate go first on issues that evoke tough dissent within his party. He has no choice, even if that sets him up for potential majority rolls on important roll call votes. Ultimately, the fate of the Hastert Rule depends on how the Speaker balances his support within the conference with the responsibility of tending to the party’s brand name (let alone to the will of the chamber).