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Why the Hastert Rule Is Bad for America

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I, like millions of other Americans during the first half of October, 2013, felt a hazy angst as the shutdown of the government commenced. At the bottom of it I struggled to fathom how a government that ostensibly represents all people could cease to function simply because of a capricious few. For me, this bewilderment led to frustration, which in turn begat a momentous shock as I started to realize that I had little recourse other than to sit and watch helplessly lawmakers grow more and more into the likeness of ungrateful, grounded teenagers.

The legislative issues that precipitated the shutdown were the debt ceiling and Obamacare. But just as important as the content of the debate is the process that enabled it: the rather dismal coexistence of the Tea Party and the deployment of the so-called Hastert Rule. The Hastert Rule -- aptly named because of the famous Republican Speaker who is said to have formulated it -- means that a GOP House speaker will allow a vote on a bill only if it has the support of a majority of Republicans. The rule isn't codified anywhere in law, so it exists as a general rule of thumb for house speakers to maintain consensus and unity within the GOP. It also happens to preserve the speaker's position of power. But doing the math, strict adherence to the Hastert Rule means that at least 110 representatives must agree on a bill before it goes to a vote; in other words just 25 percent of all house seats exercise control over which legislation will be subject to a vote. The Tea Party is a formidable enough force in the GOP that, given the Hastert Rule's method of governance, Tea Party representatives wield outsized influence far larger than the boundaries of their raucous districts.

Now I don't think the Hastert Rule is, at its core, unhealthy. But its use as a strategy happened at a most unfortunate time. Both the profound disagreement between GOP factions and the increasing polarization between Democrats and Republicans threaten the stability of American life beyond the political sphere. What used to be the speaker's strategy to maintain his leadership role and unite the rank-and-file suddenly turns into a Washington circus.

A poll last September showed that most Americans wanted the politicians with whom they shared views to be willing to compromise on the federal government's budget issues. I was among this majority, most of whom I imagine felt just as helpless as I did. I thought about taking action just like any other well-meaning and concerned citizen, perhaps by voicing my concerns to my senators and representative. But before I did so I gave up: in this national snafu, the Senate wasn't the problem. And my representative, a Democrat, obviously has no affiliation with the Tea Party, the true chokepoint. And so it was, that in those weeks of the government shutdown, representative democracy had failed me. The Tea Party represents a fraction of the total population of the United States, yet it received incidentally through the Hastert Rule immense power to destroy any proposals that slightly resembled a middle alternative.

This past November Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the trigger on the so-called Nuclear Option that modifies Senate rules to require a simple majority to confirm all judicial nominations apart from those on the U.S. Supreme Court. Republicans deride this recent event, partly because it eschews what had been a Senate rule for decades, but mostly because, at this historical moment, they lose power.

But the Nuclear Option is about so much more than elevating the influence of Senate liberals. It restores some of the conventional rules by which the executive and legislative branches do their jobs. The constitution nowhere requires a filibuster-proof majority for the president to appoint nominees to the bench. It's an argument that was asserted by Republicans during the Bush years and is now embraced by Democrats. No longer can outsized influence rest with one party when it's a minority in the chamber. And no longer can a minority party continue an obstructionist agenda when it's not the will of the American people.

The Hastert Rule is the lower chamber's analog of the filibuster. It's also a shrewd and politically strategic play to maintain the status quo. On the other hand, the Tea Party is an acerbic bunch for whom "compromise" is anathema. The synthesis of the two is a caustic political stasis that manufactures heinous and dramatic crises that corrode the public's faith in government. The fumes from the toxic mix billow from one coast to the other, contributing even more to the blame game and widening the already broad canyon that divides the political right and left. The passage last December of a budget brokered by Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray was a step away from the usual: it passed with bi-partisan support. Call me cynical, but even though it was a step in the right direction, I think that it passed only because Congress recognizes that another government shutdown is too close to midterm elections. Unless the Republican House leadership deliberately chooses to break with convention for the long-term --- which first assumes that they can put the country's priorities above their own internal divisions -- I fear that the only beacon of hope is this coming November.