- Historic Sites
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
His table talk was enriched by the resources of a cultivated mind. His favorite poets were Burns, Byron, and Tennyson; his favorite novel, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair . He habitually read Punch , and Balzac in the original, of whom he said, “There is hardly a book of his which is not sad beyond words.” He had learned French after he was forty and kept a diary in that language “for practice.” The existence of a national library is owed to Reed, whose persistent and eloquent insistence finally wore out the natural parsimony of the House to secure adequate funds for the Library of Congress.
“No one was ever better to listen to or a better listener,” said Lodge, “for his sympathies were wide, his interests unlimited and nothing human was alien to him.” “We asked the Tom Reeds to dinner,” wrote a young friend of Lodge’s from New York, “and he was delightful.” Shortly afterward Reed, an advocate of civil service reform, obtained for the young man a post in Washington on the Civil Service Commission, and thereafter, whenever the new commissioner needed help on the Hill, Reed was ready to give it. Later when the young man from New York bestrode the national scene, Reed composed probably the most memorable tribute ever made to him: “What I admire about you, Theodore, is your original discovery of the Ten Commandments.” With a little less prescience he had also said, “Theodore will never be President; he has no political background.”
In 1889, however, Roosevelt proved politically useful to Reed in his intra-party contest against McKinley, Joe Cannon, and two others for the Speakership. Now that his party would control the new House, Republican nomination was no longer an empty honor but conferred the office itself. The struggle was intense. At the same time the two Dakotas, Washington, and Montana were to enter the Union, and Roosevelt, while ranching and hunting in the Northwest, campaigned vigorously—and with success—to ensure that their representatives in the next Congress would be Republicans. On his return to Washington he opened personal headquarters in a back room of the old Wormley Hotel, where he “rounded up” the new men’s votes for Reed. Although, to the despair of his supporters, Reed refused to fish for votes with the bait of promised committee appointments, he won nevertheless. In those days the lame-duck session still met from December to March and a new Congress did not convene until the following December, thirteen months after its election. Reed took up the gavel in December, 1889.
He now occupied the highest electoral office in the gift of his party, next to the Presidency. “Ambitious as Lucifer,” in the opinion of Representative Champ Clark, who knew him well, he did not intend to stop there. Although his decision to attack the silent quorum was made on principle, he well knew that the fight would focus upon him the nation’s attention and also that if he failed, his congressional career would be over. But, as another senatorial observer, Tom Platt of New York, said, he was “supremely fearless.” He reached his decision and planned his campaign alone, partly because no one else would have thought there was a chance of success and partly because he was not sure that even his own party would support him.
There were indications that they might not. Because of the Republicans’ wafer-thin majority and Reed’s known views on the silent filibuster, it was clear that quorum-counting would be an issue in the new Congress. Rumors of coming battle rumbled over the Hill and in the press. REED WILL COUNT THEM, predicted a Washington Post headline, and the story beneath it said that even Mr. Cannon, Reed’s closest lieutenant on the Rules Committee and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, was opposed to such a course. The Democrats were manning their defenses. Ex-Speaker Carlisle let it be known that any legislation enacted by a quorum which had not been established by “recorded vote” would be taken to court as unconstitutional.
Reed had carefully examined the constitutional and legal aspects in advance and satisfied himself that he would be upheld if it came to law. On the attitude of his own party he was prepared to gamble. He shrewdly judged that if the Democrats in their rage took, and he allowed them, sufficient liberty of invective, they would provoke the Republicans to rally to his support. When the first of the contested elections, Smith vs. Jackson of West Virginia, appeared on the schedule for January 29, he was ready. Shortly before noon he summoned the members of the Rules Committee, including McKinley and Cannon, to the Speaker’s room to inform them of the “outrage” he was about to perpetrate. A messenger came to say that it was twelve o’clock just as one of the committee asked Reed when he was going to launch his offensive. “Now,” said the Speaker, and went into the chamber.
As expected, when a vote was called on the case of Smith vs. Jackson, the Democrats raised a cry of “no quorum” and demanded a roll call. It produced 163 yeas, all Republican, two less than a quorum. Reed’s moment had come. Looking squarely at the faces in front of him, he drawled, “The Chair directs the Clerk to record the names of the following members present and refusing to vote,” and began reading off the names himself.