By William K. Black
June 20, 2018 Kansas City, MO
The House Speaker is the answer to the trick question: “Who is the second most powerful elected official in the United States.” The importance of the Speaker is obvious to anyone with even a modestly sophisticated understanding of U.S. politics and government.
One of the reasons for this astonishing level of sycophancy of Republican House candidates that run for office by presenting themselves as moderate conservatives is the ‘Hastert rule.’ They run as moderates, but they vote consistently in favor of legislation that creates the most radically right policies in modern American history. If you have never heard of the Hastert rule or do not know what it is, blame the Democrats (and the media). The fact that the Hastert rule is not infamous with the public proves (again) the ineptness of Democrats as politicians (and the failure of most of the media as journalists). The rule bears the name of then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who decreed and implemented the rule. If you do not know that Hastert is infamous, and why he is infamous, blame the Democrats (and the media).
The Hastert rule is a nakedly anti-democratic, nakedly partisan, and nakedly destructive. Among the reasons that the House Speaker, rather than the Senate Majority Leader, is the second most powerful elected official in America, is that it is exceptionally difficult to bring any bill to the House floor without the Speaker’s express permission (which he or she gives by approving issuance of a “rule”). The Hastert rule leverages that power to produce obscene results. Hastert decreed that he would refuse to give any bill a ‘rule’ allowing a vote unless a majority of Republicans supported the bill. (In fairness, Hastert violated his own rule about 1.5 times annually.) Ryan has enforced vigorously the Hastert rule.
A numerical example helps illustrate the anti-democratic goal and impact of the Hastert rule. As of June 1, 2018, Republicans held 235 House seats and Democrats 193. The total is only 428 because there were seven vacancies as of that date. A majority of House Republicans is 118. A majority of the House (as of June 1) was 215. A House bill supported by every Democrat would have to gain the support of at least 22 Republicans for the House to adopt it – absent the Hastert rule. Under the Hastert rule, however, the Democrats would have to convince 118 Republicans to vote for the bill before the (Republican) Speaker would allow the House to vote on the bill. That means that a Republican Speaker would use the Hastert rule to prohibit a bill supported by 117 Republicans and all 193 Democrats (total = 310) from receiving a vote on the House floor. Those 310 supporters of the bill would represent 72 percent of total House members. A simple majority is supposed to decide virtually all House votes to adopt a bill, but the Hastert rule blocks even a super-majority of 72% of the current House members from being able to vote to adopt it. This is indefensibly anti-democratic. It breeds stalemates that stall the ability of the House to adopt vital legislation for years even when a super-majority favor adoption. It breeds hyper-partisan divisions and gridlock. Hastert was not simply a monstrous failure as a human; he was a monstrous failure as House Speaker.
Hastert is infamous because he was, in the words of the judge who presided over his criminal trial, a “serial child molester.” Hastert, while a high school wrestling coach, used his position of power to molest at least five teenage boys (one as young as 14). Hastert confessed to financial fraud he committed as part of his successful efforts to cover-up of his crimes for many years and admitted that he lied to FBI agents about those transactions. Here is a thought exercise: what if Hastert had been a Democrat and future Democratic Speakers talked openly about their use of the anti-democratic ‘Hastert rule’? How would the Republicans (and the media) respond? They would raise bloody murder and the Democratic Speaker would have to apologize and publicly abandon the Hastert rule within days.
Nancy Pelosi did not enforce the Hastert rule. We are in the midst of the “MeToo#” movement. Hastert and the Hastert rule are indefensible. It is telling that in this ideal setting to make the Hastert rule an albatross around every House Republican incumbent and candidate the Democratic Party has not even tried to do so. Every Democratic Party House candidate should demand that their Republican opponent join them in taking the ‘Restore Democracy Pledge.’ They would pledge to (1) demand and vote for an immediate end to the Hastert rule and (2) never vote for any candidate for Speaker who fails to pledge to end immediately the Hastert rule. The media should ask and report on every Republican member of the House and every Republican candidate for the House whether they have signed the democracy pledge. If they refuse to do so, the media should point out the indefensible consequences of the Hastert rule and print the member’s excuses for continuing the anti-democratic rule instituted by a pedophile, fraud, and liar.