When it comes to political deal-making, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert speaks from experience.
"I always had a feeling whenever I had to negotiate ... you really needed to make sure that you knew where the hole in the box was, so if you got in there, you could get out of it again," says the Illinois Republican, who was speaker from 1999 until 2007.
Hastert tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that he can't say whether House Republicans now have themselves in a box in the government shutdown fight because "we don't know what the end of this thing is yet."
"What they want ... is the president to put something on the table," he says.
Hastert's name has been bandied about frequently during the discussion of the shutdown. That's because of a principle attributed to him that says the speaker of the House shouldn't bring a measure to the floor for a vote unless it has the support of a "majority of the majority" — in other words, most of the members of the party in power.
Observers have pointed to the "Hastert rule" as the reason current Speaker John Boehner hasn't brought up a measure to fund the government that's not tied to any delay or defunding of the Affordable Care Act. Many think the "clean" funding measure could pass the Republican-controlled House — but with largely Democratic, not Republican, support. (Though Boehner has said that's not true.)
Hastert himself says that there's "confusion" about the rule named after him.
"Almost every speaker ever adhered to that," he explains. "Because if you don't have a majority of your people consistently ... you're not really leading your people anymore. You're getting votes from other places. ... You constantly have to bring people to the table to try to find consensus. And I think with some of [Boehner's] members, it's probably difficult to do."
Hastert traces some of the difficulties Boehner is now facing with his caucus to the campaign finance overhaul known as McCain-Feingold.
"When all the money went into the parties, the parties [had] kind of a homogenizing effect," Hastert says. "People didn't come out of there too far to the right or too far to the left."
That's all changed, he says, with the rise of outside groups that are targeting members of Congress they deem not liberal or not conservative enough.
"So all of a sudden, people are looking over their shoulders," Hastert says. "It used to be they're looking over their shoulders to see who their general [election] opponent is. Now they're looking over their [shoulders] to see who their primary opponent is. ... And so everybody's kind of neurotic about where their support is. And what this has done is pushed all the money to the right and to the left."
But he also says it's not just the money.
"There are a lot of people out there that are ... afraid that we're spending ourselves into oblivion," he says. "What these people are afraid of is they're going to bankrupt their children and their grandchildren if we keep government the way it is."
For more from Steve's conversation with Hastert, click on the audio link above.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's hear from a man who knows what it's like to do Boehner's job. Dennis Hastert served as speaker from 1999 to 2007. We found the one-time wrestling coach in Illinois, at home with his dogs, which slept through our conversation. We talked about a rule speaker Boehner tries to follow, known as the Hastert Rule, though Hastert says the rule did not start with him.
DENNIS HASTERT: The speaker has to keep everybody together. And you have to be able to produce legislation. And you have to have consensus to do it. Now, there was always this confusion about what people called the Hastert Rule.
INSKEEP: This was the rule saying that you should have a majority of your own party with you if you're a speaker and you're going to move legislation.
HASTERT: Right. And if you don't have a majority of your people consistently, all of a sudden you're not leading your people anymore. You're getting votes from other places. You constantly have to bring people to the table to try to find consensus, and I think with some of his members it's probably difficult to do.
INSKEEP: Well, that's the thing that I think is surprising to some people. This has been portrayed as a situation where a minority of House Republicans has been able to drag the majority of House Republicans to their position again and again and again, and even been able to drag the speaker to that position, even though he's not said to really believe in the position.
HASTERT: Well, and it goes back deeper than just the issue at hand. You know, you have to go back to where the Tea Party comes from, for instance. Then they represent a large group of people who really believe this country's gone too far into debt, too many big government programs, and Obamacare is symbolistic of another big government program.
People are very resistant to that.
INSKEEP: And if the Tea Party is not a majority, Hastert says its power is magnified by changing campaign finance rules. Groups representing the far right and the far left spend far more money.
HASTERT: And so all of a sudden people are looking over their shoulders. It used to be they're looking over their shoulders to see who their general opponent is. Now they're looking over to see who the primary opponent is. And so everybody's kind of neurotic about where their support is, and what this has done is pushed all the money to the right and to the left.
INSKEEP: I think I hear you saying, Speaker Hastert, that in the House Republican caucus, the reason that the people on the farther right have far more influence than the numbers would suggest is that not just Speaker Boehner but pretty much his whole conference is reluctant to get to the left of them or be perceived as being to the left of them on anything.
HASTERT: Well, that's true, but it's just not money out there. There are a lot of people out there. They are afraid that we're going to bankrupt their children and their grandchildren if we keep government the way it is.
INSKEEP: But this is the thing that I don't understand. You described a very real anxiety in society. I don't understand why the only way to address that anxiety is a particular tactic at a particular time, because when you talk with leading Republicans, including people close to Speaker Boehner, they had a different approach in mind. Admit that Obamacare is the law of the land, but there's all these other concerns to deal with having to do with the budget, having to do with entitlements, things that you might actually be able to pressure the White House on, negotiate over and get a deal with over time.
And all of that's been discarded in order to do this shutdown, it seems.
HASTERT: Well, look, the shutdown is basically over Obamacare.
HASTERT: And the administration has to put something on the table too. And of course Bill Clinton was a different type of president than Obama was. You know, I remember one time we had to cut the budget about 1 percent, so I'm on the phone at 2:00 a.m. talking to the president and the president says, well, what do you think we ought to do?
I said, I think we ought to cut the budget across the board 1 percent. He said, well, 1 percent, that's a lot of money. I don't know if we can do that. I said, what do you think, Mr. President? He said, well, let's cut it about .25 percent. Well, for most of that we had two numbers and we started negotiating on the phone. We ended up at .86 percent.
But the fact was, he would put something forward, I would put something forward and we'd get it done. And I don't think that's happening now.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that also because I'm sure that part of the White House thinking is that they attempted to negotiate with Speaker of the House John Boehner in 2011 as the debt ceiling approached, and they did put numbers on the table, it appears, and then Speaker Boehner walked away from the negotiations. Why would the president trust that Speaker Boehner is even in a position to negotiate anything?
HASTERT: Well, look it, Boehner is the speaker, and all the bills, no matter what the Senate thinks, have to come out of the House. The president has to deal with him.
INSKEEP: But if he can't be dealt with, why wouldn't the president just say, you know, you guys work that out because I can't deal with your people.
HASTERT: Well, then the president's not doing his job.
INSKEEP: Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, thanks very much for taking the time.
HASTERT: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.