An exchange between President Donald Trump and a top House Republican on immigration legislation illustrated a major reason for nearly a decade of congressional gridlock: the stranglehold on the House legislative agenda by its most conservative Republicans.
It stems from GOP leaders’ adherence to a procedure barring consideration of measures without the support of a majority of House Republicans, preventing the bipartisan legislating most Americans prefer and which could help restore Congress as a functional legislative body. The exchange occurred during the White House reality show Trump staged to counter the negative portrait in Michael Wolff’s controversial best-seller, “Fire and Fury,” several days before he further inflamed negotiations with his widely reported derogatory reference to the birthplaces of many U.S. immigrants.
The president had just seemingly endorsed California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal that lawmakers pass a “clean” bill — meaning without complicating amendments — to protect the 800,000 predominantly Hispanic Dreamers, followed by a separate measure enhancing border security.
“Mr. President, you need to be clear, though,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy interjected, reminding Trump that was counter to longstanding GOP policy linking the two issues. “I think what Senator Feinstein is asking there — when we talk about just DACA, we don’t want to be back here two years later. We have to have security…”
Trump responded: “But I think that’s what she’s saying.”
McCarthy: “No, I think she’s saying something different. I think you’re saying DACA without security.”
McCarthy was seemingly reminding Trump that Republicans don’t support legislative protection for Dreamers without including provisions enhancing border security. But the exchange exemplified something more basic, the way conservative Tea Party and Freedom Caucus members — who constitute a majority of House Republicans — have been able to block action on key issues.
The reason is continuing leadership adherence to the so-called Hastert Rule, a practice instituted nearly two decades ago when former GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert refused to let the full House consider legislation that wasn’t supported by a majority of Republicans. It allows 121 Republicans — 28 percent of the total membership — to determine the agenda, blocking proposals that may have a majority of the full House — but a minority of Republicans.
Its impact was exemplified the next day when two key House Republican chairmen introduced a hardline alternative to crack down on illegal immigration and sharply restrict legal immigration.
“‘This is the only bill that’s going to unify the (GOP) conference, and it’s going to get us to a majority of the conference,” said Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, a Freedom Caucus member. “It is important that something pass (the House) with the majority of the majority,” said North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the Freedom Caucus chairman. But that would never pass the Senate.
And therein lies the problem! As long as the GOP enforces the Hastert Rule, little of consequence could both pass the House and attract enough Democrats to pass the more bipartisan Senate and become law. The exception, available in limited situations, is the reconciliation procedure GOP leaders used on the tax and Obamacare repeal bills; otherwise, Senate passage requires 60 votes, and Republicans only have 51.
This pattern has played out repeatedly since Republicans won the House in 2010, often on funding bills shaped to attract that Republican majority. It’s why the House killed a bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013.
This isn’t entirely Speaker Paul Ryan’s fault. He inherited the system that originated with Hastert and bedeviled former Speaker John Boehner. Democrats, while hardly less partisan, were more willing to work with Republicans when they ran the House from 2007-11.
Trump floated another idea that is anathema to the GOP leadership though it would give them a useful tool to get things done: revival of congressional earmarks. Those are the provisions crafted to help a specific district or state and, in the process, get key votes for important bills.
Earmarks got a bad name because members abused them to add unnecessary “pork” projects swelling federal spending, like the infamous Alaska “bridge to nowhere” and Hastert’s earmark of funds for a highway near Illinois land he partially owned, enabling him to make millions. Many others served a valid local purpose.
One reason for changing these House procedures is that neither party is likely to have 60 Senate seats for some time. Since 1978, the only time either party had 60 votes was for a year after President Barack Obama’s election.
It helped Democrats pass major legislation alone before a Massachusetts special election cost them their 60th seat. Since the Senate will likely require bipartisan solutions for the foreseeable future, abandoning institutional barriers like the Hastert rule and the earmarks ban might make that easier to achieve.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: email@example.com.