When House Speaker John Boehner returns to Washington in 10 days, he will be haunted by the specter of his Republican predecessor, Representative Dennis Hastert of Illinois. Instead, Boehner should use the Democratic speaker of several decades earlier as a model.
What may bedevil Boehner is the so-called Hastert Rule, which asserts that a bill only can be considered if it commands the support of a majority of the Republican caucus. Never mind about overall majority rule, which would require stitching together a coalition of Democrats and Republicans.
Now, when movement conservatives dominate the Republican caucus, this requirement could force an unruly showdown over extending the debt ceiling and a possible government shutdown. And it could kill any action on an immigration bill passed by the Senate this summer. A majority of House members support a similar measure, though only a minority of Republicans.
Conservatives inside the House caucus, along with outside groups, want to "codify" the Hastert rule to make it mandatory when Republicans control the House. The speaker has ignored this demand several times, including by passing the tax cut extension in January and relief for Hurricane Sandy victims.
Other Republicans, however, are scared that forcing showdowns over the Hastert rule may turn off voters and cause the party to lose control of the House in the 2014 election -- still a longshot. Privately, the current speaker has little fondness for the rule.
And congressional experts say it encourages chaos in the legislative branch. "The Hastert rule assumes we have a parliamentary system which doesn't work in our politics," says Norman Ornstein, a veteran political scientist who is co-author of a recent book on dysfunction in Washington. "In the end it produces not a stronger speaker but a weaker one."
A better model for Boehner might be Tip O'Neill, the liberal Democratic speaker from 1977 to 1987. After Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, many House Democrats, who still enjoyed control, wanted to sidetrack the administration's agenda of domestic spending cutbacks and huge tax cuts. But O'Neill, who passionately opposed the Reagan proposals, insisted the president deserved an up or down vote.
In mid-1981, the House passed both the budget initiative and the tax cuts. On both measures, Democrats voted solidly against Reagan, but there were enough Democratic defectors who joined with Republicans to secure passage.
O'Neill always was convinced he did the right thing; if Reagan had been denied a vote there would have been a voter backlash. He was vindicated in the next elections when Democrats scored big victories in the Congress and started turning back some of the initial Reagan victories.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)