How the Hastert Rule Works in Congress

The Informal Republican Rule That Limits Debate on House Bills

Dennis Hastert
Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Karin Cooper / Contributor

The Hastert Rule is an informal policy in House Republican leadership designed to limit the debate on bills that don't have support from a majority of its conference. When Republicans hold a majority in the 435-member House, they use the Hastert Rule to forbid any legislation that doesn't have support from a "majority of the majority" from coming up for a vote.

What does that mean? It means if Republicans control the House and piece of legislation must have the support of most members of the GOP to see a vote on the floor. The Hastert Rule is much less rigid that the 80-percent rule held by the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus.

The Hastert Rule is named for former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Illinois who served as the chamber's longest-serving speaker, from 1998 until his resignation in 2007. Hastert believed the role of a speaker was, in his words, "not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority." Previous Republican speakers of the House followed the same guiding principle, including former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich.

Criticism of the Hastert Rule

Critics of the Hastert Rule say it's too rigid and limits debate on important national issues while issues favored by Republicans get attention. In other words, it puts the interests of a political party over the interests of people. Critics also blame the Hastert Rule for spiking House action on any legislation passed in a bipartisan fashion in the U.S. Senate. The Hastert Rule was blamed, for example, for holding up House votes on the farm bill and immigration reform in 2013.

Hastert himself attempted to distance himself from the rule during the government shutdown of 2013, when Republican House Speaker John Boehner refused to allow a vote on a measure funding federal government operations under the belief that a conservative bloc of the GOP conference was opposed to it.

Hastert told The Daily Beast that the so-called Hastert Rule wasn't really set in stone. “Generally speaking, I needed to have a majority of my majority, at least half of my conference. This wasn’t a rule … The Hastert Rule is kind of a misnomer.” He added of Republicans under his leadership: “If we had to work with Democrats, we did.”

And in 2019, amid the longest government shutdown in history, a congressman referred to the policy as the "stupidest rule ever created - named after somebody who is in prison that has allowed a minority of tyrants in the Congress." (Hastert served 13 months in prison after pleading guilty to violating federal banking laws. He admitted breaking the law to pay hush money to a teenage boy he had sexually molested in the 1960s and 1970s when he was a wrestling coach.)

Nonetheless, Hastert is on the record saying the following during his tenure as speaker:

"On occasion, a particular issue might excite a majority made up mostly of the minority. Campaign finance is a particularly good example of this phenomenon. The job of speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority."

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has called the Hastert Rule detrimental in that it puts party ahead of the House as a whole, and therefore the will of the people. As House speakers, he said in 2004, "You are the party leader, but you are ratified by the whole House. You are a constitutional officer."

Support for the Hastert Rule

Conservative advocacy groups including the Conservative Action Project have argued that the Hastert Rule should be made written policy by the House Republican Conference so the party can remain in good standing with the people who elected them to office.

"Not only will this rule prevent bad policy being passed against the wishes of the Republican majority, it will strengthen the hand of our leadership in negotiations – knowing that legislation cannot pass the House without significant Republican support," wrote former Attorney General Edwin Meese and a group of like-minded, prominent conservatives.

Such concerns, however, are merely partisan and the Hastert Rule remains an unwritten principle guiding Republican House speakers.

Adherence to the Hastert Rule

A New York Times analysis of adherence to the Hastert Rule found all Republican House speakers had violated it at one point or another. Boehner had allowed House bills to come up for a vote even though they didn't have support from a majority of the majority.

Also in violation of the Hastert Rule at least a dozen times over his career as speaker: Dennis Hastert himself.

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Murse, Tom. "How the Hastert Rule Works in Congress." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Murse, Tom. (2020, August 28). How the Hastert Rule Works in Congress. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "How the Hastert Rule Works in Congress." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).