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Andy Schmookler: The 'Hastert rule' is hurting America


By Andy Schmookler

For Republicans to follow the "Hastert rule" in today's House of Representatives is a betrayal of the public trust.

The "Hastert rule" (named after a former Republican Speaker of the House) says that no bill will be brought up for a vote unless it has the support of a "majority of the majority" party. A bill that would get a majority of the entire House by combining its supporters among Republicans with its supporters among Democrats never gets a chance, by this rule, unless a majority of the Republican caucus favors the bill.

Under some circumstances, that could be OK. The majority party is entitled to address our national problems with the solutions it prefers rather than make unnecessary compromises with their political opposition.

But today, that's not the choice. Following the Hastert rule does not give us Republican solutions to our problems. It means there will be no solutions. That's because what the House can pass, following the Hastert rule, cannot get enacted. No measure that cannot command a large measure of Democratic votes in the House is not likely to pass the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority, nor to be signed into law by the Democratic president.

So with the Hastert rule, under the present circumstances, what we get is government paralysis, and record lows in the esteem in which the public holds the Congress. But it's not Congress as a whole that's the problem, it's the Republicans in the House who are taking a "my way or a highway" approach to government, despite controlling less than half the government the people elected.

Fortunately, the present speaker, John Boehner, has disregarded the Hastert rule in emergencies. On New Year's Day, for example, the bill that saved the U.S. from going over the "fiscal cliff" passed the House without a majority of the majority. Likewise with the measure to provide relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy in mid-January. A majority of Republicans voted against both those measures.

But overall, nothing is allowed to reach the House floor unless most Republicans favor it, and pretty much nothing that can come out of the House on that basis has a chance to become law.

That gives the American people the spectacle of a Congress that, for 2 1/2 years, has been setting records for how little it accomplishes. Meanwhile, indifferent to getting anything done for the American people, this same Republican-dominated House of Representatives has voted dozens of times to repeal of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), despite everyone knowing that those repeals will change nothing.

No one expects politicians and political parties to ignore the quest for partisan advantage. But it is a betrayal of the trust of the public -- which sends politicians to Washington to do the people's business -- to make partisan dominance the top priority.

The question we need our public servants to ask is not "How can our party maintain maximum control?" The right question, rather, is "Given the realities of who the people have put into office, how can we enact the best possible solutions to our national problems?"

Following the Hastert rule under today's power realities is a choice to leave our government crippled during challenging times. To serve partisan interest at the cost of paralyzing the people's government is not a choice that real patriots would make.

Andy Schmookler, recently the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District, is an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher. His books include The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution. He lives in Shenandoah County.


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