Bill Black: Kill the Hastert Rule – A Pedophile’s Indefensible Rule Harms America

Yves here. Black goes a bit heavy on Dennis Hastert’s considerable personal failings, but the political points still stand.

By William K. Black, Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One. Jointly published with New Economic Perspectives

The House Speaker is the answer to the trick question:  “Who is the second most powerful elected official in the United States.”  The importance of the Speaker is obvious to anyone with even a modestly sophisticated understanding of U.S. politics and government.

One of the reasons for this astonishing level of sycophancy of Republican House candidates that run for office by presenting themselves as moderate conservatives is the ‘Hastert rule.’ They run as moderates, but they vote consistently in favor of legislation that creates the most radically right policies in modern American history.  If you have never heard of the Hastert rule or do not know what it is, blame the Democrats (and the media).  The fact that the Hastert rule is not infamous with the public proves (again) the ineptness of Democrats as politicians (and the failure of most of the media as journalists).  The rule bears the name of then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who decreed and implemented the rule.  If you do not know that Hastert is infamous, and why he is infamous, blame the Democrats (and the media).

The Hastert rule is a nakedly anti-democratic, nakedly partisan, and nakedly destructive.  Among the reasons that the House Speaker, rather than the Senate Majority Leader, is the second most powerful elected official in America, is that it is exceptionally difficult to bring any bill to the House floor without the Speaker’s express permission (which he or she gives by approving issuance of a “rule”).  The Hastert rule leverages that power to produce obscene results. Hastert decreed that he would refuse to give any bill a ‘rule’ allowing a vote unless a majority of Republicanssupported the bill.  (In fairness, Hastert violated his own rule about 1.5 times annually.)  Ryan has enforced vigorously the Hastert rule.

A numerical example helps illustrate the anti-democratic goal and impact of the Hastert rule.  As of June 1, 2018, Republicans held 235 House seats and Democrats 193. The total is only 428 because there were seven vacancies as of that date.  A majority of House Republicans is 118.  A majority of the House (as of June 1) was 215.  A House bill supported by every Democrat would have to gain the support of at least 22 Republicans for the House to adopt it – absent the Hastert rule. Under the Hastert rule, however, the Democrats would have to convince 118 Republicans to vote for the bill before the (Republican) Speaker would allow the House to vote on the bill. That means that a Republican Speaker would use the Hastert rule to prohibit a bill supported by 117 Republicans and all 193 Democrats (total = 310) from receiving a vote on the House floor. Those 310 supporters of the bill would represent 72 percent of total House members.  A simple majority is supposed to decide virtually all House votes to adopt a bill, but the Hastert rule blocks even a super-majority of 72% of the current House members from being able to vote to adopt it.  This is indefensibly anti-democratic.  It breeds stalemates that stall the ability of the House to adopt vital legislation for years even when a super-majority favor adoption.  It breeds hyper-partisan divisions and gridlock.  Hastert was not simply a monstrous failure as a human; he was a monstrous failure as House Speaker.

Hastert is infamous because he was, in the words of the judge who presided over his criminal trial, a “serial child molester.” Hastert, while a high school wrestling coach, used his position of power to molest at least five teenage boys (one as young as 14).  Hastert confessed to financial fraud he committed as part of his successful efforts to cover-up of his crimes for many years and admitted that he lied to FBI agents about those transactions.  Here is a thought exercise:  what if Hastert had been a Democrat and future Democratic Speakers talked openly about their use of the anti-democratic ‘Hastert rule’?  How would the Republicans (and the media) respond?  They would raise bloody murder and the Democratic Speaker would have to apologize and publicly abandon the Hastert rule within days.

Nancy Pelosi did not enforce the Hastert rule.  We are in the midst of the “MeToo#” movement.  Hastert and the Hastert rule are indefensible.  It is telling that in this ideal setting to make the Hastert rule an albatross around every House Republican incumbent and candidate the Democratic Party has not even tried to do so. 

Every Democratic Party House candidate should demand that their Republican opponent join them in taking the ‘Restore Democracy Pledge.’  They would pledge to (1) demand and vote for an immediate end to the Hastert rule and (2) never vote for any candidate for Speaker who fails to pledge to end immediately the Hastert rule.  The media should ask and report on every Republican member of the House and every Republican candidate for the House whether they have signed the democracy pledge.  If they refuse to do so, the media should point out the indefensible consequences of the Hastert rule and print the member’s excuses for continuing the anti-democratic rule instituted by a pedophile, fraud, and liar.

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  1. Bill Smith

    Bad rule but in my opinion a poor article. The Speaker of the House is a constitutional office established by Article 1, Section 2 of the US Constitution. It comes with certain powers. The Senate Majority Leader is not mentioned at all.

    I also see no relation between the desire to remove the rule and the need for a click bait title. Are we also to get rid of all rules written by frauds and liars?

    And how would the system work after the removal of the rule? There would be a vote on bringing up a bill? Who and how would that be scheduled? I believe it could be worked out as it could be done off the floor with any house member proposing to bring a bill to the floor in a queue and members voting on some system off the internet system to do so.

    1. dcrane

      Agreed that Hastert’s infamous behavior with children is irrelevant to the question of whether the Hastert Rule is good public policy.

      1. Brian

        I would propose that any rule created by a criminal, now felony convict, should be expunged as a matter of public decency. Why not be rid of rules written by frauds and liars, might clean up the act of a corrupt institution, no? Why not remove all laws and rules promoting, allowing and ignoring felony crimes for politicians that are illegal for citizens. Anyone else have some additions?

    2. Olga

      How did the system work before the rule was implemented? While the headline is click bait, it is nevertheless yet another reminder that we are being ruled by a buncha crooks.

  2. Beene

    Then there is a difference in the past democratic presidents that ran on helping the poor and middle class; then proceeded to put cut SS and almost eliminate the ability of the middle class to file bankruptcy.

    Any hope for the majority of the public is ending the two party systems.

    If someone thinks that at least Obama created a better health care system. It’s only saving grace was ending the ability of health insurers in canceling your health insurance when you became ill. It simply raised the cost of health insurance to assure the profits of the most expensive health system in the world.

  3. Jack

    I think the point the author was making in emphasizing Hastert’s criminal conviction, was the weight it would give to an appeal in repealing the rule, “Here is a thought exercise: what if Hastert had been a Democrat and future Democratic Speakers …”. He also mentions the #MeToo movement. I think he has a point. So often it seems Dems try to be the “good” guys and the Repubs walk all over them. The Republicans are never the “nice” guys anymore. I think we as Progressives should play as dirty as we need to. When you are fighting evil there is no room for being nice.

    1. pretzelattack

      and that also applies to the democrats who get paid to allow republicans to walk all over them. i don’t think most of the democrats are trying to be nice.

    2. Waking Up

      I have a real problem with the belief that Democrats are the “good guys” who let Republicans walk all over them. Why? Because the majority of Congressional representatives are millionaires, definitely have enough self-confidence to run for office at the National level, and a number are probably sociopathic based on their ability to say one thing during a campaign and turn around and do something completely different once in office. The Hastert Rule allows the Democrats to completely ignore issues which might hurt their corporate/billionaire donors (if it will hurt wealthy donors, the Republicans will never allow a vote). It also allows some House members to talk about issues which would actually help citizens without having to worry that their real donors will be hurt since it will never make it to a vote. Anyone of either party who proclaims to believe in “democracy” should push to eliminate the Hastert Rule. We will see…..

      1. perpetualWAR

        Hear, hear!
        One thing is certain: the Democrats are just as smarmy as the Republicans. Once you get to DC, all ethics are gone.

  4. JerryB

    I like reading Bill Black’s work but this article while good in pointing out the Hastert Rule is a bit of a rant. Also according to the Wikipedia page on the Hastert Rule, Newt Gingrich who preceded Hastert as speaker followed the same rule.

    Interestingly Dennis Hastert is from Illinois. Mike Madigan, the current Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, seems to use the Hastert Rule quite often is in his role as Speaker of the House and other roles. Also from the Wikipedia page, “the Hastert Rule is used to maintain their speakerships[4] and limit the power of the minority party to bring bills up for a vote on the floor of the House”. Madigan has been doing this for decades in Illinois and Madigan’s use of the Hastert Rule is probably one of many reasons why he has been one of the most powerful and longest running State Speakers in history.

    I am not very knowledgeable in politics but clearly some law, amendment, or policy needs to be implemented to prevent this at the federal and state level. Term Limits? But that would be like asking the Mafia to police itself.

    What’s that saying? Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

  5. McKillop

    To use past or present criminal and immoral behaviour to convince people of a course of action that would correct “Rules” that offend purported values of democracy is no fault to my way of thinking. It seems, frequently, that those people who damage other individuals or society at large -whether they are doctors or lawyers or bankers or teachers or parents or . . ., are consistent scofflaws and knaves and their corrupting influence spreads to every walk of their lives. I do not believe that each has made a mistake that might be overlooked or forgiven as an aspect of human foibles or societal values that have changed but rather are motivating traits that cause the harm done. The extraordinary control exercised by Hastert, and Ryan, and Gingrich and others is simply another manifestation of corruption of basic human values. A person who divorces an ill and dying spouse, or who abuses children or women or men, who defrauds and steals, should have an unsavoury past exposed and used as one ‘other’ example of his knavery. Beaviour attests to character and all actions.

  6. Jim Young

    The house is supposed to be based on representatives proportional to the population.

    There are enough problems with warped proportional representation, through Gerrymandering, Voter Suppression, twisted rules that some states use to set new records in the disconnect between the percentages of popular votes and percentages of representatives “elected.”

    North Carolina, for example, has 10 representatives (76.9%) from one party despite only getting 53.3% of the popular vote (with the help of Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and, to me lack of open primaries and ranked choice voting). The minority party (all others not represented at all) still got 46.54% of the popular vote but got only 3 representatives (less than half of their popular vote percentage at only 23.1% of the representatives).

    The way they worked their “Magic” meant that the dominant party victory margins in individual races ranged from a low of 1.28 times as many votes to 2.07 times as many (averaging 1.54 times as many). The minority party’s lowest margin of victory was 2.03 times as many (nearly equal to the highest (2.07) margin of victory in the dominant party, and their highest margin of victory was 2.36 times as many (averaging 2.18 times as many as the Gerrymandering concentrated their votes into as few districts as possible).


    53.27% of popular vote gets 76.9% of House Reps (+44.36% representation, 94.72% ill-gotten advantage)

    46.54% of popular vote gets 23.1% of House Reps (-50.36% representation).

    That ill-gotten advantage is then further warped by such further actions as the Hastert Rule, and is hard to calculate in terms of non-proportional (corrupt) representation advantage.

    Suggestions to start fixing this?

    Fairvote dot org – Suggests ways to get a better match of representatives to the numbers of people that want to be represented by a particular candidate, or ranked choices of several candidates.

    Votesmart dot org – Uses nonpartisan (equal numbers of opposing parties) to help document as much as possible of current representatives:

    Biographical data

    Votes on legislation

    Positions (elected ones are a bit shy while candidates are more likely to use this since they have no voting record)

    Ratings by major entities (parties, groups, etc),

    Speeches (hard to keep at least public speeches from revealing a lot about candidates and elected officials)

    Funding, as much as can be found on who funds their campaigns with the limitations of Citizens United.

  7. G. Fischer

    The article is interesting, but important information seems to be missing. Is this “rule” a law that was passed? An institutional amendment of procedural rules formulated by a standing committee? A power carried out at the whim of the Speaker of the moment? What specifies when it can be enforced or ignored? More background is needed to justify a practice that seems partisan and unfair on it’s face, a veritable procedural gerrymander.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Good points to which I would add questions about how to get rid of this rule and prevent it from returning in the future. Senate Rule 22 on filibuster is another rule used by one party to quell the other.

      1. disillusionized

        Except it can’t be, because it isn’t really “his” rule – It’s also known as the majority of the majority rule, and is in general just a way to maintain party discipline. The only way to get rid of it, is to remove the Speaker’s ability to restrict private members from bringing forth bills, though in reality, the whips (even if they are weak in the US) will ensure that a minority of members cant just impose their will upon the rest of the party, because if they don’t, the party will rapidly cease to be a party.

  8. Synoia

    The House Speaker is the answer to the trick question: “Who is the second most powerful elected official in the United States.” The importance of the Speaker is obvious to anyone with even a modestly sophisticated understanding of U.S. politics and government.

    Yes, that is the conventional wisdom. However, I believe it to be the Majority Leader of the Senate.

  9. Crosley Bendix

    For f***’s sake please stop giving the Democrats the benefit of the doubt. They are not “inept”. They are evil.

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