Considering that, by some estimates, the current House of Representatives is on pace to be the least productive in modern history, one would be hard-pressed to say Congress has earned its summer vacation. Indeed, it’s not as if they lack for things to do; immigration reform, the lifting of the debt ceiling, and the continual funding of the federal government all remain unaddressed. And then there are the problems that aren’t even on the to-do list, pressing issues like climate change, gun safety and the formulation of a serious response to what remains a crisis of unemployment. The list goes on.
Put simply, these are not the salad days of U.S. government. But it doesn’t have to be this way. When it comes to the bare necessities — like funding the government or paying its bills, or maybe even passing immigration reform — there’s a potentially functional majority out there, hiding in plain sight. It may not be likely. It probably won’t come to pass. But it is possible.
Here’s what would need to happen. First and foremost, Speaker of the House John Boehner would have to take the advice of former Republican higher-up John Feehery and ditch the so-called Hastert Rule. The rule, named after former Republican Speaker of the House (and current lobbyist) Dennis Hastert, mandates that no bill comes up for a vote unless it is supported by a majority of the majority party. So even if, hypothetically, Democrats wanted to team up with a minority of Republicans to pass a bill, Speaker Boehner, if he followed the Hastert Rule, wouldn’t give them the chance. It’s a recipe for gridlock.
The good news is that Boehner has already broken the rule a few times this Congress. That’s how the Violence Against Women Act was ultimately renewed. The bad news is that every time he does so, he’s less likely to do so again. House conservatives are wary of Boehner’s right-wing bona fides and keep him on a short leash (his reelection as speaker in January was abnormally difficult). Every time he breaks the Hastert Rule, that leash around his neck is pulled just that much tighter. And as anyone who reads the hysterical and, on the right, influential Breitbart news can tell you, it’s already mighty tight.
Because of all this, any solution for getting the House moving again is going to have to be pretty unorthodox. It’s going to require Speaker Boehner to smash the Hastert Rule, which in turn could very well necessitate that Democrats promise to back Boehner as speaker in the event of an attempted Tea Party coup. More than anything, it would require John Boehner to spurn his right-wing antagonists and be bold, brave and daring; to be something more than the savvy careerist and legislative mediocrity he’s thus far shown to be.
Now, the only reason this sounds very unlikely is because, well, it is. But unlikely and impossible are not the same thing. In fact, as New York’s Jonathan Chait and Salon’s Brian Beutler have argued, there appear to be the faintest signs that relatively moderate (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say relatively pragmatic) Republicans in the House and Senate are growing tired of the party’s semi-permanent stance of opposition. Multiple Republicans, for example, have preemptively disowned any attempts to use the debt ceiling as leverage, or to shut down the government in order to defund Obamacare. There may be a desire in some Republicans to actually govern.
Either way, with immigration reform, a potential government shutdown and the debt ceiling on the near horizon, something’s got to give. Whether it’s the Hastert Rule or the government itself is up to John Boehner to decide. Let’s hope he chooses well.