Democracy in the House

John Boehner

That informal rule, which bars a vote on legislation unless it has the support of a majority of Republicans, has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks to progress and consensus in Congress, and, in its own way, is even more pernicious than the filibuster abuse that often ties up the Senate. Under the 60-vote requirement to break a filibuster, at least, coalitions can occasionally be formed between the Democratic majority and enough Republicans to reach the three-fifths threshold.

But under the majority-of-the-majority rule in the House, Democrats are completely cut out of the governing process, not even given a chance to vote unless Republicans have decided to pass something. Since 2010, there have been enough extremist Republicans in the caucus to block consideration of most of the bills requested by the White House or sent over from the Senate. If President Obama is for something, it’s a safe bet that most House Republicans are against it, and thus won’t bring it up.

That’s why the House never took a vote on the Senate’s latest five-year farm bill. Or the Violence Against Women Act. Or a full six-year transportation bill. Republican opposition prevented consideration in the last term of the Senate’s $60 billion in providing relief from Hurricane Sandy; so far, the House has been willing to approve only a measly $9.7 billion after members claimed the Senate’s bill was full of (nonexistent) pork.

The House has always been a sprawling, unruly chamber, and its leaders have long used some form of control to choose which bills reach the floor and to push their party’s policies. The majority-of-the-majority requirement, however, is relatively new and entirely a Republican creation. Newt Gingrich occasionally used it when he was speaker, but it was institutionalized in 2004 by Speaker Dennis Hastert (and Tom DeLay, the power behind the throne).

This anti-democratic tactic, now known as the “Hastert rule,” helped turn the chamber into a one-party institution that utterly silenced the minority. A post-9/11 intelligence reform bill, urgently sought by President George W. Bush, was bottled up by Mr. Hastert and his allies, who knew it would pass if Democrats were allowed to vote.

This was not a rule used by Democrats. Speaker Tom Foley allowed the North American Free Trade Agreement to pass in 1993 on mostly Republican votes, and when Nancy Pelosi took the job in 2007, she repudiated the Hastert rule, allowing both parties to vote together on legislation. For example, she allowed a bill to pass paying for the Iraq war over the objections of most Democrats.

“I’m the speaker of the House,” she said at the time. “I have to take into consideration something broader than the majority of the majority in the Democratic caucus.”

That’s an attitude rarely expressed by Mr. Boehner. But if the country is to move forward on issues with widespread support — getting past the debt limit, immigration reform, gun control, and investments in education and infrastructure — he will have to let the two parties vote together on a solution.

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