House Paradigm Shift?

[ Posted Thursday, February 28th, 2013 – 16:59 UTC ]

Has John Boehner scrapped the Hastert Rule for good? And I do mean "for good" -- in both senses of the term.

The news today is that the House of Representatives passed the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and has now sent the bill to President Obama for his signature. Thus ends a year and a half of battles in the House over the legislation, which used to be routinely renewed on a fairly non-partisan basis. This, of course, is good news, for all the obvious reasons. But I'm wondering if it isn't even bigger and better news of a more fundamental nature in the way John Boehner runs his House.

The business world loves to toss around buzzwords, and one of the buzziest of these is to speak of a "paradigm shift" (especially popular in the high tech industry). Occasionally new products do shift an entire paradigm -- such as the Macintosh computer (with its graphic user interface), the iPhone (ditto), and the iPad (delinking the keyboard concept from a computer). There are plenty of others, but the easiest ones to point to all seem to come from Apple (perhaps this is my own bias, I'll fully admit).

A true paradigm shift doesn't just put a whizzy product on the market, it changes how people do basic things. Cell phones were a paradigm shift. Before cell phones, telephones existed at homes, at businesses, and as pay phones in random places. With cell phones, "location" didn't matter anymore -- suddenly, a phone could be anywhere. That's a paradigm shift.

Has the Speaker of the House now ushered in his own paradigm shift in the House of Representatives? You could call it the "Boehner Rule," perhaps, if it continues. The Boehner Rule would replace the Hastert Rule Era, and usher in a new way of conducting business. Maybe.

The Hastert Rule was the creation of former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert. It meant that Hastert would not introduce any bill onto the House floor unless it had a "majority of the majority" behind it. Since Republicans were the majority party at the time, this meant that Hastert had to have a majority of his own caucus behind any bill before he'd even introduce it. This way, even if the bill failed, Hastert would know that his party had largely supported it and there wouldn't be much (if any) political blowback on the Republican side. It was kind of a pre-emptive "cover your ass" rule, in a way.

Of course, Hastert didn't have the Tea Party to wrangle with. Boehner does. And after two years of internal power struggles, Boehner now seems increasingly ready to buck the Tea Party in order to get some things done.

In both the resolution of the fiscal cliff and, now, on VAWA, Boehner has passed bills with a few dozen Republicans and a whole bunch of Democrats. He has passed bills which a large portion of his own party voted against. This is more significant than it sounds, when you consider it is indeed a paradigm shift from the previous two years.

House Republicans are not monolithic. The Tea Party used to claim about 70 seats, but after the 2012 election, they now hold fewer (probably in the 50-60 range, depending on who you count as a Tea Partier). This frees Boehner up a bit. There are, after all, over 150 Republicans who are not avowed Tea Partiers. Some of them can be quite reasonable, on certain subjects. Enough of them to pass legislation, when you add in a whole bunch of Democratic votes.

John Boehner had a choice to make, with the new Congress. He could have continued not getting much of anything done, and allowing the most extreme members of his party to "wag the dog" and happily continue voting on bills that had zero chance of ever passing the Senate -- or he could have chosen to do things differently, and get some legislation passed over the objections of the hardliners.

Now, just because he's done so on two important bills doesn't mean it's going to happen on every issue. Two data points don't exactly make a reliable trend. But there is a lot more hope that Boehner will be a bit more reasonable in the months going forward. Which probably increases the chances of passing legislation on subjects like background checks for gun purchases, and comprehensive immigration reform. Such bills will only pass, realistically, with overwhelming Democratic support and a few dozen Republicans voting for it as well.

Up until now, Boehner has hewed (hewn?) pretty closely to the Hastert Rule. But it all blew up in his face back in December, when he tried to ram through his "Plan B" for avoiding the fiscal cliff. He could not get the votes for it. His own party turned on him, and left him with mud on his face, looking very silly in the bargain. Perhaps this was the point Boehner decided to punt the Hastert Rule, although I will admit that that is nothing but sheer speculation on my part.

But what is a fact is that soon afterwards, Boehner allowed a vote on a bill to raise income tax rates -- something Republicans hadn't been a part of for over 20 years. And the bill passed, mostly with Democratic support.

The VAWA battle ended the same way, with a slight twist. Boehner allowed votes on two bills -- the hardline Republican version, and the version that had already passed the Senate with wide bipartisan support. First, he brought the Republican version to a vote. This allowed the Tea Partiers and all the rest of the hard Right to register their vote on their bill. The bill failed. But all those people who voted for it can now safely go back to their districts and run campaigns on "I voted the right way" as a result. It's called "political cover." Immediately after the showboating vote, Boehner allowed the Senate version to be voted on. It passed. With bipartisan support.

Could this be a model for the future? Can Boehner keep the Tea Partiers happy by allowing them meaningless votes on bills with no chance of ever becoming law? And then go right ahead and get some things done with bipartisan support, so that the entire Washington lawmaking process isn't held hostage by 50 or 60 House members?

One can only hope. Two bills don't prove the paradigm has truly shifted -- it's way too early for such a definitive statement. But it could truly be a new way for Boehner's House to operate. Keep the hardliners happy by allowing them some votes, and then go ahead and get some things done. The first big test of this will come in the next budget battle, over the continuing resolution to keep the federal government in business. The deadline is the end of March, so we'll be able to see very quickly whether this is a true trend or not. Obama and Mitch McConnell will strike some sort of deal, it'll pass the Senate, and then John Boehner will be faced with the same choice as what he just faced with VAWA. It will be very interesting to see what happens next.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


One Comment on “House Paradigm Shift?”

  1. [1] 
    michty6 wrote:

    I won't be holding my breath...

Comments for this article are closed.