Czar Of The House

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Strangers to Washington, particularly Englishmen who are used to the House of Commons, are surprised and disappointed, in modern times, by an actual view of Congress in session—the usually deserted chambers, the inattention to the speeches, the rare appearances m their chairs of the so-called Presiding Officers, the abysmal level of the oratory, the manner and even the dress of the members. It has a drabness reflected in the dull pages of the Congressional Record , most of whose “speeches” were never spoken but merely printed as part of the endless popularity contest of modern American politics. Members base their votes on questionnaires; they bend with every wind; fence-building among any minority or pressure group is the order of this soft-minded day. It is a generation at least since intelligent people have seen a battle of true principle, heard a great speech or even a great witticism in our legislative halls.

If this sounds bilious or extreme, we invite our readers to study this fine account of the career of Thomas B. Reed, the great Speaker of the House m the closing years of the nineteenth century. He made no deals. He sent out no self-praising circulars or questionnaires to find in what direction the whims of the crowd should lead him. He did what he thought was right, whatever the voters or the party felt. Indeed, he paid no attention to the voter element at all, despite which his own Maine constituency had the good sense to return him regularly to Washington, just as Woodford returns Winston Churchill. His was a hard, bright intellect, as incorruptible as that of another noted New England representative, John Quincy Adams. The clue to his personality, Mrs. Tuchman observes, was “moral superiority” in every sense. It might be difficult to explain, in these times, what that meant, but the f ramers of the Constitution must have had some ideal of the republican representative in their minds, before parties were formed or herdthinking was conceived of, and we suspect that Speaker Reed was just such a man. —Oliver Jensen

On January 29, 1890, in the House of Representatives a newly elected Speaker was in the chair. A physical giant six feet three inches tall, weighing almost three hundred pounds and“dressed completely in black, out of whose collar rose an enormous clean-shaven baby face like a Casaba melon flowering from a fat black stalk, he was a subject for a Franz Hals with long white fingers that would have enraptured a Memling.” Speaking in a slow and exasperating downEast drawl, he enjoyed dropping cool pearls of sarcasm into the most heated rhetoric and watching the ensuing fizzle with the bland gravity of a New England Buddha. When a wordy perennial, Representative Springer of Illinois, was declaiming to the House his passionate preference to be right rather than President, the Speaker interjected, “The gentleman need not be disturbed; he will never be either.” When another member, notorious for ill-digested opinions and a halting manner, began some remarks with, “I was thinking, Mr. Speaker, I was thinking…,” the Chair expressed the hope that “no one will interrupt the gentleman’s commendable innovation.” Of two particularly inept speakers he remarked, “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.” It was said that he would rather make an epigram than a friend. Yet among the select who were his chosen friends he was known as “one of the most genial souls that ever enlivened a company,” whose conversation, “sparkling with good nature, was better than the best champagne.” He was Thomas Brackett Reed, Republican of Maine, aged fifty. Already acknowledged after fourteen years in Congress as “the ablest running debater the American people ever saw,” he would, before the end of the session, be called “the greatest parliamentary leader of his time…far and away the most brilliant figure in American politics.”

On this day in the early weeks of the Fifty-first Congress the Speaker had determined to put into effect a plan on which he had long deliberated, had consulted no one, and had risked his political future. The stakes were high: he would either break “the tyranny of the minority” by which the House was paralyzed into a state of “helpless inanity,” or he would resign. Without a flicker of expression on the great white moon face, “the largest human face I ever saw,” as a colleague described it, without any quickening of the drawling voice, he announced a certain new ruling to the Clerk. Instantly, according to the reporter for the Associated Press, “pandemonium broke loose. The storm was furious…and it is to be doubted if ever there was such wild excitement, burning indignation, scathing denunciation and really dangerous conditions as existed in the House” during the next five days.

The system Reed had decided to challenge was known as the silent—or disappearing—quorum. It was a practice by which the minority party could prevent any legislation obnoxious to it by refusing a quorum. A quorum was presumed to be present unless questioned, but the rules permitted a roll call upon demand of a fifth of the membership. Minority members would demand the roll and then remain silent when their names were called. Since the rules prescribed that a member’s presence was established only by a viva-voce reply to the roll, and since it required a majority of the whole to constitute a quorum, the silent filibuster could effectively stop the House from doing business. For nonpartisan matters the quorum would reappear, only to vanish again as soon as a vote was asked on any pending bill opposed by the minority. The process could be repeated interminably until the majority dropped the bill.