The Hastert rule is an informal guiding principle for leaders in the House of Representatives that dictates a majority of the majority party support any measure before it receives a vote.
This principle is named after former U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R), who served in the position from 1999 to 2007. Republicans in the House used the principle dating back to Newt Gingrich’s speakership from 1995 to 1999. Gingrich and Hastert responded to prior speakerships that blurred Republican and Democratic lines on areas of common policy interests.
Hastert served as speaker during a period of Republican resurgence with George W. Bush’s election in 2000 and GOP control of the Senate after 2002. In 2004, Hastert said the following about requiring a majority of the majority to schedule floor votes:
On occasion, a particular issue might excite a majority made up mostly of the minority. Campaign finance is a particularly good example of this phenomenon. The job of speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority.
The speaker framed this principle as a compromise position from previous years when the Republican majority excluded House Democrats from drafting substantive bills. The Hastert Rule is intended to solidfy the party line, prevent dissent within the majority and control the majority party’s policy agenda.
After Democrats took control of the House in 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to use the Hastert rule in managing her caucus. Pelosi wanted Republicans to be part of the process and sought broader support for major legislation. This appeal for bipartisan votes was countered by an increasingly polarized political environment that created contentious debates over substantive legislation. For example, the 2009 vote on the Affordable Health Care for America Act received only one Republican vote and lost 39 Democratic votes.
Pelosi’s successor, John Boehner (R), flouted the Hastert rule on multiple occasions before resigning from the speakership in 2015. Boehner allowed three bills to reach the floor in 2013 that were not supported by a majority of the Republican legislators. He counted on a small number of Republicans and a majority of Democrats to pass bills reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, approving Hurricane Sandy relief funds, and avoiding a fiscal cliff.
Paul Ryan (R) restored the Hastert rule following his selection as Speaker of the House in 2015. Boehner’s resignation followed pressure by conservative members of the party to reassert the rule. Ryan promised these members that he would apply the rule to any immigration bill that emerged from the U.S. Senate.
The Hill (April 28, 2016): “Now some conservatives are saying that may be too narrow an application of the GOP practice known for years as the ‘Hastert Rule’.”
The Atlantic (July 21, 2013): “Today, Boehner’s violations of the Hastert rule have angered conservatives who see themselves as the ones marginalized by his ability to get around their demands.”
NPR (June 11, 2013): “Boehner has never committed to follow the Hastert rule in every case, and in reality even Hastert violated his own rule.”