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“the House Shall Chuse Their Speaker…”
And in doing so, the fate of Congress—will it be weak? will it be strong?—is determined
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
In modern times, the man universally recognized as the great Speaker was Sam Rayburn of Texas—“Mr. Sam,” as he was called. He served in the House more than forty-eight years, seventeen of them as Speaker, longer by far than any other. (One Speaker, Theodore Pomeroy of New York, served only a single day, March 3, 1869.) Rayburn used the “Board of Education,” as had Longworth and Garner, to keep current with everything going on in Congress. It was there where the White House switchboard found Vice President Harry Truman on the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. Rayburn’s real power flowed from his personal integrity and his almost intuitive sense of the changing moods of the House. He could tell where the House stood on a question by quietly canvassing the members on the House floor. “You can’t really say how you lead,” he once said. “You feel your way, receptive to those rolling waves of sentiment, and if a man can’t see and hear and feel, why then, of course, he’s lost.”
Rayburn stood only five feet seven, and he was prematurely bald, but he was an imposing figure all the same. He had a politician’s love of good storytelling, although he drew the line on the off-color. He paid special attention to new members of the House, encouraging them to take full part in its proceedings. There was nothing arbitrary about Rayburn, although his anger came quickly if he discovered that a colleague had lied to him. “I don’t remember what I say,” he liked to remark; “I don’t have to.”
Rayburn had to negotiate with his committee chairmen; he could not order them as Reed and Cannon once had done. “If you want to get along,” Rayburn would say, “go along.” He had to depend on persuasion, on appeals to patriotism, on personal friendships, to get done in the House what he believed needed doing. “If you have common sense,” he declared, “you have all the sense there is.”
Rayburn’s friendships within the House extended to the opposition party, and that was not unique with him. He was once asked to go to Massachusetts to help defeat Joseph Martin, leader of the House opposition. “Speak against Martin!” Rayburn exploded. “Hell, if I lived up there, I’d vote for him!”
Rayburn long held power, and, in his own way, he had examined what was needed for its successful, effective use: “a man with brains in his head and iron in his backbone.” He had both, and so did the other great Speakers: Garner and Longworth and Cannon, all of whom he had known, and Reed, Carlisle, Blaine, and Clay.
Rayburn died in 1961, and he was not an easy Speaker to follow. By his long service, by his striking personality, he had come to personify what Reed once said the Speaker should be: “the embodiment of the House, its power and dignity.”
In the sixteen years since Rayburn, John McCormack of Massachusetts and Carl Albert have in turn served in his place, and in those years the House of Representatives has changed so much that Rayburn himself would be startled. The majority Democrats have especially reformed their ways. Rayburn was saddled with a rigid seniority system that made committee chairmen independent and uncontrollable; that system has been broken. He confronted a recalcitrant House Rules Committee; that committee now has been tamed and made again an arm of the leadership, as in the days of Reed and Cannon. The party’s caucus no longer shrinks from ordering action by House committees; the party’s steering committee has new authority to sustain the Speaker, and, in sum, the powers of the Speaker have been restored to a greater degree than at any time since the revolt in 1910 against “Czar” Cannon.
Speaker Albert, especially, played a central role in this long struggle to reform the House and its committees, to return to the Speaker many of the powers long lost. A gentle, somewhat diffident man who disliked disciplining his colleagues, Albert hesitated to use the very powers he helped regain. Indeed, he contented himself with that restoration and then announced his own retirement. Those powers are still there, however, waiting for “a man with brains in his head and iron in his backbone.”