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Why Emasculating the Speaker Is Rarely a Good Idea

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

They’re at it again.

Conservatives outside of Congress — including Heritage Action for America, the Club for Growth, Phyllis Schlafly, L. Brent Bozell, the Tea Party Express, Morton Blackwell, Richard Viguerie, Citizens United and the Traditional Values Coalition — have signed a letter in support of a rule that would bind the House Republican Conference to bring legislation to the floor only if a majority of House Republicans support it (the so-called Hastert Rule).

The effort is simply the latest attempt by elements of the right to emasculate Speaker John A. Boehner and his colleagues in the House leadership.

Unable to defeat him in his bid for another term as speaker after the 2012 elections, some conservatives are seeking to do whatever they can to undermine him. Apparently, they figure it would make their party stronger and more politically in tune with voters, even though all evidence is to the contrary.

Boehner and his lieutenants have “violated” the Hastert Rule (which isn’t a formal rule at all) only a handful of times, primarily on issues where party bomb-throwers were digging themselves — and the entire GOP — into a deep hole (e.g., aid after Superstorm Sandy and the Violence Against Women Act).

But not always. The most recent “violation” was on a vote concerning “the acquisition and protection of nationally significant battlefields and associated sites of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 under the American Battlefield Protection Program.”

In most recent sessions of Congress, somewhere between a couple and a handful of motions have passed the House without the support of a majority of the majority (see a list here), so it isn’t as if Boehner is doing anything all that different from what has been done over the past decade. 

But conservatives who want to straitjacket Boehner don’t care about that. They just want to flex their muscles — muscles that are not as big as they think are. Some of the individuals and outside groups calling on House Republicans to institutionalize the so-called Hastert Rule have influence, but many have been kicking around the conservative movement for decades without having much impact at all.

Boehner is plenty smart. He knows that he can’t get too far out front of his members, so he doesn’t push much legislation forward without a majority of his caucus unless he knows that it is vital for his party’s long-term health to do so. He has learned the limits of leadership in the current political environment.

Sometimes, even House Republicans who oppose a measure are quite content to have Boehner use Democrats to pass it. The fiscal cliff deal is a good example. More than a few House Republicans knew that while they couldn’t support the measure for their own political reasons, it was important for their party that the bill passed.

On immigration, Boehner wants to rally Republicans around a House measure and then go to conference with the Senate, rather than trying to jam a Senate immigration measure down House Republicans’ throats, which wouldn’t work.

Luckily for the GOP, Boehner has a pretty good idea of what is good for his party and what is not so good. He is politically savvy. And luckily for national Republican strategists, the move to limit Boehner’s freedom looks like yet more conservative posturing rather than a serious threat to his leadership.