There’s been a lot said in recent days about the so-called Hastert Rule. It is cited as the main reason why House Speaker John Boehner won’t allow a vote to fund the government with no Obamacare strings attached—under the rule, no legislation can be brought to the floor without a majority of Republican votes. But the rule’s namesake, former House speaker Denny Hastert, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday, “The Hastert Rule never really existed. It’s a non-entity as far as I’m concerned.”
He explained that at the 2006 press conference where he is credited with instituting the rule, he was speaking generally and philosophically. A reporter asked if Hastert, who was having trouble getting an immigration reform bill out of committee and building support in the GOP conference, couldn’t get Democrats to work with him. The genial speaker replied that relying on the other party for the bulk of votes is “something I would not generally do,” a fairly benign statement, as he remembers it now, that appears to have morphed into an ironclad rule. “Generally speaking, I needed to have a majority of my majority, at least half of my conference. This wasn’t a rule. I was speaking philosophically at the time…The Hastert Rule is kind of a misnomer.”
Hastert stopped short of saying Boehner should waive the Hastert Rule. “John doesn’t talk to me,” he said. “John has his own circles, and he doesn’t reach out. That’s his nature.” The two men served in the House together when Newt Gingrich was speaker. After Gingrich stepped down, Hastert was the consensus choice of House Republicans to take the top job; he was seen as a healing figure after the contentious Gingrich years.
A former high school wrestling coach, hardworking and plainspoken, he was a refreshing change after Gingrich’s grandiosity. “The real Hastert Rule is 218,” he said, referring to the number of votes needed to pass legislation. “If we had to work with Democrats, we did,” he said. Still, he added that he couldn’t recollect ever having to rely on Democratic votes the way Boehner would if he put legislation before the House to fund the government without the restrictions much of his caucus demands.
Hastert is the longest-serving Republican speaker in history, holding the position from 1998 until 2007, when the Democrats took back the majority. He said he never took a bill to the floor unless he was sure it had the requisite 218 votes: “Sometimes it would take three months to put that together. We had some pretty ornery people, and we had to find a way to compromise and get things done. I wasn’t a show horse; I wasn’t on TV programs. I was up there at 7:30 in the morning, and I didn’t leave until 10:30 at night. I was in my office bringing people to the table.”
“You can’t be in Congress and shut down government and get anything done. It’s an oxymoron.”
Asked what he would do differently from Boehner, Hastert said, “I would have tried to put something together early on.” He is proud that on his watch, the House followed what’s known as regular order, with a conference committee in place by April 15 to resolve budget differences between the House and Senate, and appropriations bills done by August. “If you let somebody logjam the process, then it becomes a big problem at the end.” The shutdown he experienced in 1995-96, before he became speaker, was over spending, and in his view, despite the shellacking the Republicans got with the public, what came out of it was a balanced budget agreement, he said.
Hastert said he has fond memories of dealing with the Clinton administration. “We dealt with Jack Lew all the time,” he says. Then Clinton’s budget director, Lew is now treasury secretary and warning of potential default in two weeks if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling. Pressed on the differences between then and now, Hastert said: “I didn’t have to deal with Barack Obama. I dealt with Bill Clinton, and he came to the table and negotiated.” In August 2000, with Clinton nearing the end of his term, Hastert needed to resolve some outstanding issues. He was told he could reach Clinton, who was in the back of a limousine in Africa at 10 a.m., which was 2 a.m. in Washington. The White House operator put the call through, and Clinton came on, chatty as always, “How you all doin’?”
“You know how Clinton was,” Hastert recalled, slipping into a pretty good imitation of Clinton’s easygoing chatter. There was plenty of time to banter before getting down to business. Hastert congratulated the president on his successful trip to Africa. Finally, Clinton asked, “What can I do for you?” “A haircut across the board,” Hastert replied. “I would suggest a 1 percent cut.” Can’t take that, Clinton said, offering all the reasons why that wouldn’t work. “What do you suggest?” Hastert asked him. A quarter of 1 percent, Clinton replied. “We dickered back and forth and settled on .86 percent, not because it was a magic number,” said Hastert. “But the moral of the story is Clinton would come to the table. I’m not going to go into the science of negotiating, but you can put one thing on the table and end up with something entirely different, but you’ve got to talk.”
Hastert said he doesn’t like to engage in Monday-morning quarterbacking and added: “I don’t want to overmanage John Boehner. I’m not in his shoes. But when we had things that were tough to do, I was constantly engaged—sitting at the table, bringing in conservatives, moderates. You can’t be in Congress and shut down government and get anything done. It’s an oxymoron.”