Hastert says the strong whip operation he governed as speaker helped him keep his Republican Conference in line.
Speaker John A. Boehner sought to assure his conference on Tuesday that the “Hastert rule” is still regular practice, on the heels of breaking it for the third time this Congress.
Republicans breached the rule — under which the speaker only brings forward bills that enjoy support from the “majority of the majority” — last week when a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act passed with a majority of Democratic votes. Of three major bills passed this session, two have passed in violation of the rule. The House passed the fiscal-cliff deal Jan. 1 despite the rule as well.
The rule — named after former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. — may be tested again in coming months on legislation relating to immigration and gun control, although a GOP leadership aide said that scenario is highly unlikely.
At a closed-door conference meeting Tuesday, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia asked Boehner whether he planned to keep bringing forward bills that split the GOP conference.
Boehner told reporters after the meeting that the VAWA vote was an outlier and said he would like to abide by the Hastert rule.
“We tried everything we could to ... get the differences in our conference resolved. And the fact is that we couldn’t resolve our differences. It was time to deal with this issue and we did,” the Ohio Republican said. “But it’s not a practice that I would expect to continue long term.”
Hastert, who served as speaker from 1999 to 2007, didn’t actually coin the term. Instead, he said the support of the “majority of the majority” was his operating principle, and it quickly became known as his rule.
The underlying principle is important to ensure the majority is in charge of the House, Hastert said in a phone interview Tuesday.
“If you start to rely on the minority to get the majority of your votes, then all of the sudden you’re not running the shop anymore. I think that’s what it comes down to,” Hastert said. “It worked for me. And I thought that was the best way to govern to make sure your people are on board on any major piece of legislation you’re trying to move through.”
The Illinois Republican, who is now a senior adviser at Dickstein Shapiro, also acknowledged that every speaker has his or her own methods to deal with the climate they face.
“Everybody has to do their own thing, and everybody has different circumstances. So I’m not trying to be a Monday morning quarterback on what the speaker does. But, if you look at [Democrat Nancy] Pelosi’s record [as speaker], she had a majority of her conference on most issues she moved as well,” he said.
Many observers on both sides of the aisle have compared the relative discipline of the Republican Conference during the Hastert years to the present climate; Boehner has struggled repeatedly to reach 218 Republican votes on major bills since he took the speaker’s gavel.
Hastert, though, remembers his tenure differently.
“There was no way we could discipline our members, especially when we only had a margin of five or six votes. Why? Well, if that person wasn’t with you one day, he or she, you had to ask them for their vote the next day,” Hastert said.
The former speaker also pointed to the strong whip operation in place when he governed.
“I think we really kind of micromanaged legislation more,” he said. “When we came to the floor, we knew exactly where everybody was going to be.”
But the speaker’s job was easier in a time when earmarks and fundraising help from leadership were used to enforce party discipline. Plus, Hastert enjoyed the benefit of having a Republican president in the Oval Office during most of his tenure.
During the first two years of Hastert’s reign, however, he faced off against Democratic President Bill Clinton, although the 106th Congress did have a Republican majority in the Senate.
Hastert said a key difference was that Clinton was always willing to engage, in contrast to President Barack Obama, whom he remembers as being more aloof based on his short time in the Senate.
“I’ve served with Obama, the last two years I was speaker. And, you know, he was never engaged. He just never was engaged,” Hastert said. “He was out raising money when he was in the Senate. He never came to the Illinois delegation meetings. He wasn’t there.”