The Hastert Rule


It is such a given so little reflected upon by its participants and observers, that political life leads to cynicism, that even when reflection periodically takes place, much is lost in the glare. Consider in this regard the already commonplace observation that in clambering back atop the “fiscal cliff” on Tuesday, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives – specifically its leadership – violated the “Hastert Rule,” that rule by which the GOP has vowed over the past two decades not to bring to a vote on the floor – never mind permit to pass – any legislation that does not have the support of a majority of a GOP majority. You can read here what the tactical doctrine is behind the Hastert Rule. You can read via that link, too, how Nancy Pelosi made clear when she held the speakership that she would observe no such rule.

There is no suggestion here that Democrats present a grandly noble contrast to craven Republicans. Political cynicism is a virus against which there is no inoculation by party. But epidemics do become geographically centered, and the GOP of the past two decades – the legacy of Newt Gingrich, the true originator of the Hastert Rule – is ground zero. The Roll Call link above explains clearly the reasonable calculation in the mathematics of governance and power for observance of such a rule. It makes perfect sense if one has come to believe that the maintenance of power and of party control are manifest instrumental goods – all toward the higher ultimate goal of ideological advancement that, we have it on someone’s authority, leads finally to the national good. And no one here on the sad red earth believes that the maintenance of power and of party control is an ill thing, not if one truly believes what one believes and wants to do something about it. But as will happen on this earth, instrumental goods too elevated in their believers’ regard will come to be mistaken for the greater intrinsic kind.

“I’m the Speaker of the House,” Pelosi told reporters. “I have to take into consideration something broader than the majority of the majority in the Democratic Caucus.”

What a thought. Is anyone actually willing to state aloud and publically that the end that elected representatives are chosen to serve should not be the national good, but rather long-term party interests that – like the ultimate communist utopia – will someday grandly reward for the bitter sacrifices along the way? Well, actually, it has been said.

[Senate GOP Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell explained that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Worth recalling, too, is that at the now much reported GOP meeting still two years earlier, on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, Newt Gingrich made a prediction.

“You will remember this day,” [Robert] Draper reports Newt Gingrich as saying on the way out. “You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown.”

Gingrich has been right about very little in his post-speakership years, but he got that one unexpectedly right. The title of Robert Draper’s book, by the way, is Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Hastert Rule, like the McConnell declaration, needs to be lifted out of the muck of blasé political cynicism to reflect more famously to the citizenry what they clearly represent. Anyone and any party can make claims to far reaching acts of good hidden in the harm they do us, yet the Tea Party inspired extremism of current day conservatism makes no pretense that it is not, literally, an enemy of government. You think about it: how much difference does a definite article make? “Enemy of government.” Enemy of the government.

Yes, there are avowals of love and fealty to a glorious dream of America that was lost, depending on the reactionary voice we hear, one or even two centuries ago. But the United States that is today, and progressively for a century and more now, protecting the rights of its workers, advancing the health of its citizens, providing safety nets for its young, poor and disadvantaged, ensuring the old-age security of its elderly, seeking to cooperate with other nations for the collective well-being of the planet – that America is not the America to which American conservatives, today’s GOP, feel devotion.

Elect a president whom these conservatives believe represents that America, the current America, and the dedication of these GOP legislators and leaders directs itself not – with as much guidance as conservatives can lead the President to accept – toward  helping him do good for the nation, but toward causing him to fail in order to advance their own cause. That is a curious sense of mission given that you could surely win some kind of bet on the wager that most Americans believe that legislators are elected not to pursue the interests of their party, but those of the nation. If a majority of all representatives believes that a particular policy would serve the country well, think of what it means, then, for a minority of the legislature to deny the country the benefits of that policy because its passage would, in the estimation of the majority party, fail to serve its interests? If the leaders of a party cannot hold their membership to that obvious and true greater purpose of public service, let it be a matter for that party to confront and master, not one by which the nation should be denied good governance.

Can there preside a greater cynicism of purpose among elected officials short of personal enrichment and corruption? That has been our politics in the era of contemporary conservatism. And we have come to accept this as normal, as not deserving of our outrage and complete rejection?

That is one of the two major political parties of the United States. That is the “Hastert Rule.”

We might have expected something else to rule.


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