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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg December 19, 2013

Dennis Hastert: There was no Hastert Rule

One of the guiding principles for Republicans in the House of Representatives is that no bill comes up for a vote unless a majority of Republican members support it. It’s called the "Hastert Rule," after former House Speaker Dennis Hastert who held the post from 1999 to 2007.

The Hastert Rule got a lot of attention during the government shutdown. Democrats said the House could have broken the logjam sooner if they had been allowed to vote on a bill that would have pulled in about 30 Republican members. Current Speaker John Boehner would have none of it.

But the namesake of the rule now says no rule, in fact, exists.

"There never really was a 'Hastert Rule'," Hastert said Wedneday on MSNBC’s The Cycle. He said the "rule" was just a statement of common sense.

"If you're a leader of the House and you need to go to the other side of the aisle to move your agenda, you give up a lot of power and leadership," Hastert said. "The real Hastert Rule (was) you didn't bring a bill to the floor unless you had 214 votes."

We wanted to address two issues in this fact-check. Is there an actual rule? And if not, why is everyone acting like there is one?

Donald Wolfensberger, who spent 28 years as a House staffer and now directs the Congress Project at the Wilson Center, said there is no official Hastert Rule.

"It was neither a House rule nor a Republican conference rule, and certainly not a matter of law nor enforceable by point of order or caucus sanction," Wolfensberger said. "As Hastert put it, it is a commonsense rule of thumb."

In fact, Boehner himself has deviated from the Hastert Rule without consequence. In January, the House passed $50.7 billion in federal aid for Hurricane Sandy victims with a majority of Republicans in opposition. A majority of Republicans also voted no on a January 2013 fiscal cliff deal that passed the House.

The Hastert Rule, essentially, is popular shorthand for a tactic to prevent political embarrassment. In the rough and tumble of House politics, Wolfensberger said, the leader of the majority party would be naive to count on help from the minority to get a bill passed.

"It may be hard to believe but the minority sometimes takes delight in leaving the majority high and wet on the losing end of a vote on a matter that was supposed to have had bipartisan support," Wolfensberger said.

Its origins likely stem from the GOP takeover of the House in 1995, said Linda Fowler, professor of government at Dartmouth College. Before then, Republicans had not controlled the House since President Dwight Eisenhower was in office.

"Old-style Republicans had been in the minority so long, they worked with the majority on the theory that part of a loaf was better than nothing," Fowler said. "Gingrich and others like him were scornful of such accommodation."

Hastert says the term that bears his name originiated during a contentious vote on immigration policy in 2006. A reporter asked him why he wouldn’t move forward with help from Democrats.

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"You don't really want to move anything unless you have the solid base of your party along with you," Hastert explained.

Chicago Sun Times Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet tracked it back to a 2003 speech by Hastert where he outlined his guidelines as speaker.

"My fifth principle is to please the majority of your majority," Hastert said.

As Hastert said on MSNBC, it was all about holding on to power within his own party.

A rule without a capital R

The record is clear that the principle known as the Hastert Rule never had any formal standing. But the record is full of moments when politicians, staffers and journalists used the phrase.

In March, Rep. David Schweikert, R- Ariz., urged his colleagues to "honor the Hastert Rule and bring bills to the floor that enjoy majority support among our conference."

In September, a spokesman for Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D- Ill., said "The Hastert Rule basically means that 118 Republicans have to agree on immigration reform before the whole House can consider it."

A Nexis search produced nearly 100 references to the Hastert Rule in newspapers since 2004. According to Nexis, the first instance was in November 2004 when Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Brownstein wrote about Hastert: "One of his guiding principles has been that no bill should pass the House unless it has support not only from an overall majority but from a majority of Republicans. Call it the Hastert Rule."

An interesting, but worthwhile aside. For a brief time, members of Congress referred to a different "Hastert Rule." In May 2004, we found instances of people talking about the Hastert Rule in terms of members of Congress being able to raise the nation’s debt ceiling without voting on a standalone measure (the idea being to make life easier for members of Congress). The mechanism had been called the Gephardt Rule after former Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., but when Hastert became speaker, Democrats changed the "rule’s" name.

Our ruling

Hastert said there never was a Hastert Rule. As a formal rule, adopted by the Republican Conference or the House Rules Committee, that is accurate.

Boehner himself broke the Hastert rule at least twice in 2013 and suffered no consequences.

Yet, the Hastert Rule has become shorthand for a belief popular among Republicans that has no-doubt shaped GOP policy in the past and present. And Boehner could face consequences from his Republican caucus if he continued to violate the rule -- namely losing his speakership.

In that sense, the Hastert Rule has become a little akin to common law among the GOP.

Hastert has a technical point but glosses over some important caveats. We rate his claim Half True.

Our Sources

MSNBC, The Cycle, Dec. 18, 2013

Washington Post, Hastert on Hastert rule: It’s a "misnomer", Oct. 3, 2013

Chicago Sun Times, Will Boehner break the "Hastert Rule" today?, Oct. 16, 2013

Email interview with Linda Fowler, professor of government, Dartmouth College, Dec. 18, 2013

Email interview with Donald Wolfensberger, director, Congress Project, Wilson Center, Dec. 18, 2013

Cannon Centenary Conference, The changing nature of the speakership, Nov. 12, 2003

Los Angeles Times, House GOP Resistance Presents Bush a Clear Test of Leadership, Nov. 29, 2004

The HillDems tire of waiting on reform, September 17, 2013

The Hill, Dems seek improvements to voting law, July 23, 2013

The Hill, Boehner gives farm bill a push, June 13, 2013

The Hill, GOP members vow to go rogue if leaders ignore 'Hastert Rule', March 12, 2013

Congressional Quarterly, "Debt Deepens No Matter What Name You Use," May 18, 2004

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