Dump the Hastert Rule

The idea that paralyzed government: “The job of speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority,” Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert
The idea that paralyzed government: “The job of speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority,” Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert AP Photo

It is widely felt that the Congress has become dysfunctional when it comes to dealing with government finances, both as to revenue sources and expenditures. There is substantial disagreement between the parties with regard to the timing and impact of so-called "austerity measures" and as to their likely impact on the growth of the economy and the unemployment rate.

Article 1 of the Constitution says in Section 5 that: "Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings", and Section 7 states that: "All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other bills," and in Section. 8: "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States" and: "To borrow money on the credit of the United States."

Clearly, Congress has financial responsibilities.

Key contributors to the Congress' inability to discharge the responsibilities of Sections 7 and 8 are the current rules (allowed, but not required, by Section 5); namely, the filibuster in the Senate and the "Hastert Rule" in the House.

The Hastert Rule named after the former Republican speaker of the House who said: "the job of speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority," which in effect says that a small minority of the House can prevent the full House from considering and voting on legislation. The current party affiliation of the 435 House members is 234 Republicans and 201 Democrats. That means that as few as 118 Republicans could, under the Hastert Rule, prevent any legislation from coming to the floor. That's just over 27 percent of the House membership.

The American political system is built on the foundation of majority rule with protection of minority rights. The Senate filibuster rule allows 41 percent of the Senate to prevent legislation from being acted on. The Hastert Rule, when applied, is potentially even more egregious. In fact, the only significant fiscal measure that has passed Congress in recent months, albeit under the threat of imminent disaster, was the "fiscal cliff" vote in which (of those voting) 91 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans passed the bill.

The majority of the majority opposed it.

The Hastert Rule is not a written rule passed by members of the House. It is just a procedure adopted by some speakers, going back to Newt Gingrich, that has been applied under the speaker's power to schedule legislation to be considered by the House. The recent inaction on the "sequester" bespeaks the feeling of a majority of the majority Republicans that the harm of the sequester would not be bad enough to warrant a true up or down vote on proposed balanced budget alternatives.

Is the public's interest being served by procedures such as the Hastert Rule? No, party interests are trumping the public's interest. There has always been friction in legislatures where party discipline enforces vote conformity to party positions. Without this discipline, it would be very difficult to pass any contentious legislation. But procedures such as the Hastert Rule preempt the vote, thereby eliminating the individual member's decision on whether or not to vote with the party position.

The simplest remedy would be to allow a supermajority of all House members to petition for a bill to be brought to the floor. The Senate's 60 percent supermajority to bring cloture to filibusters is at the high end of what would both ensure majority rule and preservation of minority rights. The advantage of such an approach is that the role of party affiliation would be reduced and the role of the individual Congress member's sense of what is right for the country would be enhanced. The electorate's ability to evaluate their representative's effectiveness would also be improved.

Peter Sielman lives in Salem and is a former first selectman of that town.

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