The Boehner Rule: A Minority of the Majority?

What do the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the Hurricane Sandy Relief Act, and the fiscal cliff deal have in common? All passed the House this year over the objection of a majority of the majority party. In bringing these bills to the House floor, Speaker John Boehner chose to willfully violate the “Hastert Rule” in order to pass legislation. The Hastert Rule is named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert, who did not bring bills to the floor unless those bills were supported by a majority of House Republicans. Boehner’s decision to repeatedly violate a rule that he initially vowed to uphold reveals the biggest challenge of modern day political leaders: finding reliable followers.

Gone are the days of Speakers plying members with promises of pork and campaign money. Earmarks have been banned, getting reelected is not the strong incentive it once was for many members, and for some of the chamber’s newer members, ideology trumps party loyalty. With fewer carrots and sticks to wield, Boehner’s arsenal is limited. He can craft legislative deals that the majority of the majority support, but most of what the majority of House Republicans support may not even pass the House and is often dead on arrival in the Senate. Given these realities, Boehner is faced with a different set of political calculations. While Hastert relied on a majority of the majority, Boehner may increasingly rely on a minority of the majority together with a majority of the minority to pass important legislation.

Make way for the “Boehner Rule”
No Speaker wants to go down in history for a legislative record opposed by the majority of his or her own party. But Boehner may not have a choice. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer were Boehner’s go-to vote counters throughout the 112th. In order to pass big fiscal measures, Boehner has consistently had to rely on Democrats.

• The 2011 Budget Control Act? Boehner could not have passed it without 95 Democrats.
• The fiscal 2011 Omnibus? Passed because 81 Democrats voted for it.
• The fiscal 2012 Omnibus? Democrats saved the Speaker with 149 votes.
• The payroll tax deal in February 2012? Passed with the support of 147 Democrats.
• The November 2012 “minibus” appropriations bill? 165 Democrats voted in favor.

Boehner’s decision to kick off the 113th by bringing the VAWA, Hurricane Sandy Relief, and the fiscal cliff bill to the floor, despite opposition from a majority of the majority, may reflect broader electoral concerns. Given the party’s less-than-stellar performance with women in last year’s election, many Republican strategists feared that holding the VAWA hostage would further damage the party’s image. Almost three-quarters of the 87 Republicans who voted in favor of the VAWA are from blue states—a factor that almost certainly played into Boehner’s decision to bring a party-splitting bill to the floor.

The Senate sometimes takes the lead
It’s also worth noting that the three “Boehner Rule” bills had already cleared the Senate when the Speaker brought them to the floor. As Sarah Binder of George Washington University notes, it is harder for Boehner to stand behind his conservative majority when Republican senators have already voted in favor of Democratic measures. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell negotiated the fiscal cliff bill with Vice President Joe Biden; it passed 89-8. Hurricane Sandy passed the Senate with bipartisan support, and the VAWA passed with the support of a majority of Republican senators. Boehner’s strategy so far has been to allow his party to first vote on conservative versions of Senate-passed bills before bringing the Senate version to the floor. The approach allows every member to get the vote they want on record, and the Speaker to get a bill passed.

There are 26 House Republicans who voted no on the VAWA, Hurricane Sandy Relief, and the fiscal cliff bill. Boehner has 232 members in his conference; without the support of these 26 members, he does not have a majority of the whole House. On issues that split the party (immigration, for example), Boehner’s go-to strategy for the 113th may be to let the Senate vote first, then decide if the bill is electorally significant enough to invoke the “Boehner Rule.”