Dennis Hastert: 'There Is No Hastert Rule'

Alex Seitz-Wald

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert says the famous—or infamous—rule that bears his name doesn't actually exist. "There really wasn't a 'Hastert Rule,' " the longest-serving Republican speaker, who is now a lobbyist and consultant, told National Journal in a phone interview Wednesday evening.

The Hastert Rule, as it's become known, is more of a self-imposed standard that says House leaders shouldn't allow a vote on a bill unless it has the support of the majority of their own party. The rule has been cited as the reason Speaker John Boehner won't bring up a clean continuing resolution to reopen the government, even though it probably has the 218 votes needed to pass, as well as the reason Congress can't pass immigration reform, new gun-control laws, or much else.

If Boehner were only willing to break the Hastert Rule more often, the thinking goes, the possibilities would be endless. Of course, that's probably not going to happen, but either way, Hastert says don't blame him.

"That was a misnomer at a press conference. One time they asked me about immigration legislation, why don't I just use Democrat votes? I said, well I'm never going to not have a majority of my own party go along with me. If you do that, then you're not using your own policy. And [the press] blew that up as the Hastert Rule. The Hastert Rule, really, was: If you don't have 218 votes, you didn't bring the bill to the floor," he explained.

Asked by a surprised reporter to confirm that he, Dennis Hastert, thinks there is no rule named after him, the former speaker replied: "There is no Hastert Rule, no."

Still, when asked if Boehner should try to pass a clean CR by breaking the rule heretofore known by Hastert's name, the former speaker said his successor should not. "I would be very careful with Speaker Boehner; I would make sure that he had a majority of his conference on board with him," he said.

Indeed, the "majority of the majority" principle was in place long before Hastert—he just put a name to it, intentionally or otherwise. In today's Washington, even Hastert's former aides think the controversial rule may need to be made more flexible. But Hastert himself warned Boehner in January against breaking his non-rule too many times. "Here is the problem. Maybe you can do it once, maybe you can do it twice, but when start making deals when you have to get Democrats to pass the legislation, you are not in power anymore," he told a conservative radio host in January.

For his part, the former speaker refrained from criticizing Boehner or anyone else in Washington, saying instead that politicians need to do more compromising.

By way of example, he told a story about a budget impasse late in the Clinton administration when House and Senate negotiators were about $100 billion apart from each other and deadlocked. Clinton was on a trip to Africa and out of pocket, but Hastert was told he would finally get a chance to speak with the president, who was in Turkey, the next morning at 10:00 local time. That made it 2 a.m. in Washington. So Hastert, from his office in the Capitol, dialed the White House switchboard and was patched through to Clinton, sitting in the back of a limousine in Ankara, 10,000 miles away.

The president asked what Hastert wanted (and here, the former speaker does his best Clinton impression). Hastert told him a 1 percent across-the-board haircut. Clinton said that's too much and offered 0.25 percent instead. Hastert counteroffered and so on, until they settled on .86 percent, and that was that. "The moral of the story is: We sat down—well, not actually, he was so far away—and we got the job done," Hastert says.