The federal shutdown drags on. The debt-ceiling limit approaches. House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who represents Virginia’s 7th District, now have one job — and it does not entail placating the tea party caucus. Their job is to protect the best interests of the nation, which means hammering out a budget deal and protecting the full faith and credit of the United States.
To that end, they should cut deals to pass a clean continuing resolution and raise the debt ceiling, with no strings attached. This should be easy to do; they can find more than enough votes by uniting sensible Republicans (such as Virginians Scott Rigell and Frank Wolf) with House Democrats who would happily embrace such a plan.
The only thing that stops them is Boehner’s nonsensical insistence on following the Hastert Rule, named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert. The rule stipulates that legislation should not pass without a majority of the majority party.
Some Republicans justify the Hastert Rule by arguing that Americans voted for divided government: a Democratic president and Senate, but a Republican House. This would carry more weight were it actually true. In fact, Democrats won the popular congressional vote in 2012, garnering 54.3 million votes to the GOP’s 53.8 million. Gerrymandering, not a public mandate, gave Republicans a majority of seats.
Given the fluid situation in D.C., Boehner might be able to pass a clean CR without violating that rule. But even if he cannot, there is no good reason he should let the rule stand in the way of a deal. He already has abandoned the rule on several occasions to pass measures such as the fiscal cliff deal, Hurricane Sandy aid and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
There is another reason he should ignore the Hastert Rule: It reflects the principle of “loyalty down,” meaning fidelity to lower-ranking members of the GOP. But loyalty down makes little sense unless it is reciprocated by loyalty up, and tea party backbenchers have demonstrated that they place their own desires above those of the leadership.
The only remaining reason to abide by the Hastert Rule is the fear that, if he abandons it again, Boehner could lose his speakership (and Cantor could lose his leadership role as well). That is a grossly inadequate excuse — and any congressional leader who puts his own best interests ahead of the nation’s should not hold a leadership position anyway.