What History Tells Us About the Future of Obama’s Agenda

Jill Lawrence

President Obama had little choice but to lay out his priorities in his State of the Union address and hope they wouldn’t be sidelined by an unreceptive Republican-controlled House.

If two decades of history are a guide, House Speaker John Boehner will allow votes in the next two years on only a handful of bills opposed by a majority of House Republicans. And that’s the best case. If Boehner is as stingy with such votes over the next two years as he was during the past two, Obama could be out of luck entirely.

Boehner is trying to adhere to the “Hastert Rule,” the informal practice of speakers refusing to let the House vote on bills backed by less than half of the majority party. Dennis Hastert, the Illinois Republican who was speaker from 1999 to 2007, warned against ignoring the rule last month after Boehner permitted votes on fiscal-cliff and Hurricane Sandy bills.

“When you start passing stuff that your members aren’t in line with, all of a sudden your ability to lead is in jeopardy, because somebody else is making decisions,” Hastert said on Fox News Radio. “The president is making decisions, or [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi is making decisions, or they are making the decisions in the Senate.”

Hastert had a mixed record during his own tenure as speaker, according to a chart compiled by Derek Willis, an interactive news developer at The New York Times. In each of the 107th, 108th, and 109th sessions of Congress, Hastert allowed only two bills to pass with a minority of Republicans in favor. But in the 106th Congress, he allowed six. The difference? Democrat Bill Clinton was president. The rest of the time, Republican George W. Bush was in the White House.

The Hastert rule tends to be thrown aside more often in times of divided government. It is easier to follow when the same party controls the House and the White House.

When Bush needed their support on difficult issues, such as debt-limit increases, appropriations bills, and continuing resolutions to fund the federal government, most Republicans usually came around. “You had a Republican president dictating the terms of the debate, and it was a lot easier to get Republicans to vote with their president,” said Republican strategist John Feehery, a former Hastert aide. “You just had more leverage.”

The pattern held from 1991 until 2009, regardless of who was in power: The Hastert Rule would go by the boards once or twice when the same party held the House and the White House, and would be ignored more often under divided government. When Democrats controlled the House and George H.W. Bush was president, during the 102nd Congress, four bills passed with less than half the majority in favor. Five passed in the 105th Congress and six in the 106th, when Republicans held the House and Clinton was president. Six passed in the 110th Congress, when Democrats were in the majority and George W. Bush was president.

Things changed, however, in the 112th Congress that just ended last month. Bolstered by the tea-party wave of 2010, Boehner held the line a lot more often than Hastert did when he was serving with a Democratic president. Boehner did not bring up a single bill opposed by most of his caucus until Dec. 31, 2012. That was after Obama’s reelection, after Democratic gains in the House and Senate, and after the Senate had passed the bill in question—a deal to avert the fiscal cliff—85-8.

The fiscal-cliff package passed the House with 85 GOP votes in favor and 151 opposed. Under intense pressure from Northeastern Republicans, Boehner allowed a vote on the Sandy bill two weeks later at the start of the 113th Congress. Only 49 Republicans voted in favor of that one, while 179 voted no.

So what does this portend for Obama’s priorities, which include immigration reform, new gun laws, a tax-code rewrite, new energy policies, and a grand bargain to reduce debt?

The rationale for blocking Obama at every turn is gone, since he can’t run for reelection again. There may also be a rationale for compromise, given the level of alarm within the GOP after the elections.

It may not be easy for the speaker. On some issues, such as immigration, Boehner may face a choice between the demands of House members from overwhelmingly conservative districts and the broader interests of his party, its Senate candidates, and its presidential hopefuls.

But if Boehner returns to the traditions of the past 20 years, that opens up the possibility of three to five additional votes on bills that don’t have majority GOP support. Obama and the Democrats should take care not to squander them.