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Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Hastert Rule

On January second, after the New Year was rung in and all the Christmas decorations were taken down, I went to my campus office even though I didn’t need to. Classes don’t resume until February, but I wanted to retreat to a place that’s mine and mine alone.

Our trip home to Iowa had some bumps in the road, including a Christmas fraught with tension, bloodshed and drama. I’m not exaggerating, and the bloodshed was my own. It all had to do with a food-processor, minced fingertips, and the realization that I’m done trying to appease people. In fact, it’s my New Year’s resolution.

You can try and work with others, but in the end they will still cast themselves as the negotiator and cast you as the villain. Take for example Obama and the “fiscal cliff.” Liberals were laying on the pressure, ready to pounce if Obama went back on his campaign promise of raising taxes for the wealthy. Even though Obama loosened his standards for what wealthy is, he more or less stuck to his guns after weeks of obstinate talks with Boehner. But both sides got some of what they wanted.

Yet Texas Senator Cornyn’s editorial in the Houston Chronicle tells a different story. Obama has for “the fourth time in two years stalled and delayed on critical policy actions,” and “…the White House has purposefully slow-walked the process into a shameless attempt to score cheap political points,” and “…the biggest fiscal problem in Washington is excessive spending not nonsufficient taxation,” and “…it may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well-being of our country.”

Huh? So this is all Obama’s fault? He is the one who is acting on politics instead of policy, and if he doesn’t fall in line, the government will be shut down? Wow. How can two people (Senator Cornyn and myself) see the same issue so completely differently?

I don’t get it, which is why it’s good I never went into politics myself. Now February promises more strife between the White House and Congress, and only time will tell how far both sides will let the stakes escalate. That’s the problem; once a line has been drawn in the sand, it takes the wind, or the tide, or a storm to erase it, unless someone is willing to shuffle over that line themselves.

And I know all too well that once someone draws a line, they don’t want to shuffle over it.

Anyway, on Wednesday I was looking over my syllabi for next semester when there was a light knock on my partially opened door. I looked up to see my friend Sally, who also teaches in the Politic Science department, standing in the entrance to my office.

“Hi!” I effused. “I didn’t think anyone else would be here.”

Sally shrugged her shoulders and entered my space. Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, her hair pulled back and without makeup, she looked young enough to be a student rather than a professor. “I needed to get out of the house.” She plopped down on my Pottery Barn armchair. That chair was a splurge a couple of years ago, but I wanted to make my office homey and pleasant, and it matched perfectly with the tan blinds and the yellowish floor lamps I had previously purchased.

“I know what you mean,” I told her. “I could never be a stay-at-home mom. I mean I love my kids, but after a while…”

“After a while you get restless.”

“Yes.” I pushed away my keyboard and swiveled my office chair towards her. “How was your Christmas?”

“Fine.” She furrowed her brow and looked down at my bandaged hand. “What happened to you?”

I sighed. “On Christmas day I was helping my brother-in-law Jack figure out why the food processor wasn’t working. He plugged it in when my hand wasn’t completely out…”

“Ouch!” Sally grabbed her own fingers in the thought of such pain and trauma. “How awful.”

“It was. For everyone. Especially since Jack and I were already arguing. Now he feels terrible, but he’s still holding a grudge. I guess we both are.”

“Oh. Do you want to talk about it?” Sally looked at me with compassion, and I realized how convoluted my story must sound.

“Not really. Not about that. There’s something worse going on, actually.”

She tilted her head as if to say “go on,” so I did. “Monty wants me to consider the option of moving. Relocating. He’s worried that if he can’t travel for his job he’ll be reassigned to general council, and become nothing more than a glorified HR guy. Meanwhile, a friend in New York knows about an opening in this firm that sounds great…” I waved my hand, still gauze-wrapped to protect my healing fingertips, in the air to finish my statement.

“Huh.” Sally leaned back and kept her face neutral. “So what did you say?”

“What could I say? I don’t want to move. But it’s because of my ultimatum that he’s not travelling any more. If it was up to him, he’d keeping going, his health be damned. So I don’t know. The only thing we can agree on is that we won’t entertain the option of splitting up. After that, there’s not a lot of common ground.”

“Wow,” said Sally. “And I thought my Christmas with my arguing children and visiting relatives was stressful.”

I smiled in response and gazed around my office. Could I really give this up? I’ve spent years building a career here, and I love my students, the staff, and the subjects I teach. Monty says he understands, and all he asks is that I remain open to the idea of living somewhere else. “There are other places you could teach, you know. Or you could write, or get involved in local politics. You know there’s a ton of things you could do.”

He said this to me, and I replied. “Well, there are a ton of things you could do here in the Seattle area. Have you even looked for other jobs around here?”

He shook his head, and we pretty much left it at that. I pushed the memory of our conversation away and put my attention back on Sally.

“Do you know the Hastert rule?” I asked her.

Sally gave me a perplexed look before answering me. “You mean former Speaker of the House Dennis Hassert’s rule that a ‘majority of the majority’ needs to approve of something before the House can vote on it?”

“Yes,” I said. “Boehner broke that rule on the fiscal cliff vote, but what else could he do? Now his party is furious with him, and he’s lost his standing with Republicans, and he even came close to not being voted in again as Speaker.”

“Yeah, I know. But we’re both happy about that, aren’t we?” asked Sally.

I looked down at my bandaged hand. “I’m not sure, exactly. It just seems like certain rules should be followed, you know? Even though people are never going to agree on what those rules are, and they’re certainly never going to see eye to eye on all the issues. I just wish there was a format Monty and I could follow on this. One that would keep up safe from total government shut-down.”

“But didn’t you just say you both agreed, absolutely, that you’re staying together?”

I nodded my head. “Yeah. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be outrage that crosses party lines.”

Sally shook her head at me. “You worry too much. It’s going to be fine.”

So I laughed at myself and we agreed to forget about work that day, and we went and got lunch instead. A chance to talk and catch up did me a world of good. It made me feel like I could represent my own interests without breaking any promises.