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Czar Of The House
When Speaker Reed set out to break “the tyranny of the minority,” he touched off an explosive battle. At stake was the effectiveness of the chamber itself
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
So practiced had members become in what Reed called “this peculiar art of metaphysics which admits of corporeal presence and parliamentary absence” that the previous Congress had been held absolutely stationary for two weeks by such tactics. During the last session there had been four hundred roll calls, of which Reed calculated that three hundred were deliberately obstructionist and amounted to “spending a whole month of our time calling over our own names.” The result was a “demoralized” House and “legislative anarchy.”
The silent quorum had had a progenitor as strongwilled as its now would-be executioner. John Quincy Adams, when he entered the House in 1832 after leaving the White House, became the first member ever to violate the House rule requiring members to vote when present. Though warned that he might be setting a dangerous precedent, Adams remained adamant for the rest of his term and thereafter the practice grew until it became more blighting than the Senate filibuster because it was so effortless in comparison. Whereas senators had to stand up and talk a bill to death, representatives had only to sit back in their seats and be silent. As a cure for the evil a proposal had twice been made in earlier Congresses to establish a quorum by actual count of those present instead of by yea and nay response to a roll call. Reed himself had denounced this plan when it was proposed in 1879 by John Randolph Tucker of Virginia, a distinguished constitutional lawyer but regrettably a Democrat. The awful consequences of declaring a quorum on any other basis than a viva-voce yea and nay were prophesied by that other remarkable man from Maine and then Speaker, James G. Blaine.
“Gentlemen,” he had warned, “the moment you clothe your Speaker with power to go behind your roll call and assume that there is a quorum in the Hall, why, gentlemen, you stand on the very brink of a volcano!”
But Republican circumstances were now so different that Reed was ready to dare the brink, indeed had to if his term as Speaker were not to be squandered in futility as a prisoner of the minority. The recent election of 1888 had been a Republican victory in which for the first time in sixteen years one party controlled both Executive and Congress. But by barely a hair. The dour Benjamin Harrison was a minority President who had lost to Cleveland in popular vote and sat on that unstable throne so oddly carpentered by the Electoral College system. The Re- publican majority in the House was a mere eight, 168160, only three more than a quorum, which was set at 165. To pass any party legislation, especially the Mills bill for a protective tariff, which was the cherished Republican goal and burning issue of the decade, the whips would have to round up and keep in their seats the whole Republican membership at every session, with no more than three absences allowed for sickness, traveling, lobbying, constituent-greeting, or any other activity. Outside of a prison such control of the inmates was impossible. Already by early January one Republican had died, several were ill in bed, and one had gone home to attend a dying wife.
The Democrats had already served notice that they intended to obstruct legislation when, on the opening day, they had demanded tellers for adoption of the Rules, normally a routine matter. Their policy was not simple negativism but a stern setting of ranks against enactment of the Mills bill as well as the Force bill for supervising elections (a measure directed against the poll tax and other southern devices). The Democratic minority was equally determined to prevent a vote on the seating of four Republicans, two of them Negroes, in contested elections from southern districts.
To Reed the issue was survival of representative government. If the Democrats could prevent that legislation which the Republicans by virtue of their electoral victory could rightfully expect to enact, they would in effect be setting aside the verdict of the election. The rights of the minority, he believed, were preserved by freedom to debate and to vote, but when the minority was able to frustrate action by the majority, “it becomes a tyranny.” He believed that legislation, not merely deliberation, was the business of Congress. The duty of the Speaker to his party and country was to see that that business was accomplished, not merely to umpire debate.
What use were elections if, as he later said to his constituents, nothing could be done that the beaten party would not have done itself? Why should statesmen battle for “power with responsibility” if their defeated opponents could have “the same power without responsibility?” He quoted the Koran: ’“Dost thou think, O Man, that we have created the heavens and earth in jest?’ Are elections a farce and is government by the people a juggle? Do we marshal our tens of millions at the polls for sport? If there be anything in popular government it means that whenever the people have elected one party to take control of the.House or the Senate, that party shall have both the power and the responsibility. If that is not the effect, what is the use of the election?”