The Hastert Rule, also known as the "majority of the majority" rule, is an informal governing principle used in the United States by Republican Speakers of the House of Representatives since the mid-1990s to maintain their speakerships and limit the power of the minority party to bring bills up for a vote on the floor of the House. Under the doctrine, the Speaker will not allow a floor vote on a bill unless a majority of the majority party supports the bill.
Under House rules, the Speaker schedules floor votes on pending legislation. The Hastert Rule says that the Speaker will not schedule a floor vote on any bill that does not have majority support within their party—even if the majority of the members of the House would vote to pass it. The rule keeps the minority party from passing bills with the assistance of a minority of majority party members. In the House, 218 votes are needed to pass a bill; if 200 Democrats are the minority and 235 Republicans are the majority, the Hastert Rule would not allow 200 Democrats and 100 Republicans together to pass a bill, because 100 Republican votes is short of a majority of the majority party, so the Speaker would not allow a vote to take place.
The Hastert Rule is an informal rule and the Speaker is not bound by it; they may break it at their discretion. Speakers have at times broken the Hastert Rule and allowed votes to be scheduled on legislation that lacked majority support within the Speaker's own party. Hastert described the rule as being "kind of a misnomer" in that it "never really existed" as a rule.
The Hastert Rule's introduction is credited to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert; however, Newt Gingrich, who directly preceded Hastert as Speaker (1995–1999), followed the same rule. The notion of the rule arose out of a debate in 2006 over whether Hastert should bring an immigration reform bill to the House floor after it had been passed by the Senate. “It was pretty obvious at that point that it didn’t have the votes to move it out, especially in the Judiciary Committee,” he said later. “It was pretty well stacked with people who weren’t willing to move.”
Commentators' views about the Hastert Rule are generally negative. The New York Times reported in 2016 that the rule "has come to be seen as a structural barrier to compromise."
George Crawford, writing in The Hill, observes that the rule restricts legislative proposals to those approved by the majority of the Speaker's caucus. When combined with a systematic effort to marginalize the influence of the minority power, it can lead to a breakdown of the legislative process, radicalization of the members of the minority party, and legislation that does not reflect the broadest view and area of agreement.
It also all but ensures that the Speaker will keep their job.
Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, an expert on Congress, opposes the rule, arguing that it is a major reason why bills passed on a bipartisan basis in the Senate are often not later introduced in the House. Ornstein notes that the speaker is the leader of their party but is also "a constitutional officer" who is "ratified by the whole House" and as such has a duty to put the House ahead of their party at crucial times.
Ezra Klein, while at The Washington Post, wrote that the Hastert Rule is "more of an aspiration" than a rule and that codifying it as a formal rule would be detrimental to House Republicans, as it would prevent them from voting against bills that the Republican caucus wanted passed but that a majority of Republicans wanted to oppose for ideological or political reasons.
Matthew Yglesias, writing in Slate, has contended that the rule, while flawed, is better than the alternatives and that the dynamic prior to its adoption was "a weird kind of super-empowerment of the Rules committee that allowed it to arbitrarily bottle up proposals."
Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent, as well as commentators such as Rex Huppke of The Chicago Tribune and Eric Black of MinnPost have blamed the Hastert Rule for the government shutdown of October 2013. Huppke added facetiously, "Here's the fun part: the Hastert Rule isn't an official rule, or an official anything. It's just a made-up concept, like bipartisanship or polite discourse."
CNBC's Ben White has called the Hastert Rule "perhaps the most over-hyped phenomena in politics," since Republican speakers "have regularly violated the rule when it was in their interest to do so."
A discharge petition signed by 218 members (or more) from any party is the only way to force consideration of a bill that does not have the support of the Speaker. However, discharge petitions are rarely successful, as a member of the majority party defying their party's leadership by signing a discharge petition can expect retribution from the leadership.