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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
The House erupted in uproar, some Republicans wildly applauding, all the Democrats “yelling and shrieking and pounding their desks” while the voice of their future Speaker, Crisp of Georgia, boomed, “I appeal! I appeal from the decision of the Chair!” The explosion was “as violent as was ever witnessed in any parliament,” a member recalled later. Unruffled, expressionless, the Speaker continued his counting, “Mr. Blanchard, Mr. Bland, Mr. Blount, Mr. Breckinridge of Arkansas, Mr. Breckinridge of Kentucky…”
Up jumped the Kentuckian “famous for his silver hair and silver tongue.” “I deny the power of the Speaker and denounce it as revolutionary!” he called.
The resonant twang from the Chair continued unregarding, “Mr. Bullock, Mr. Bynum, Mr. Carlisle, Mr. Chipman, Mr. Clement, Mr. Covert, Mr. Crisp, Mr. Cummings,” through hisses and catcalls and cries of “Appeal!” irresistibly rolling down the alphabet. ”…Mr. Lawler, Mr. Lee, Mr. McAdoo, Mr. McCreary…”
“I deny your right, Mr. Speaker, to count me as present!” bellowed McCreary.
For the first time the Speaker stopped, held the hall in silence for a pause as an actor holds an audience, then blandly spoke: “The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman is present. Does he deny it?”
He went on with his count, unmoved by the protests, denials, cries of “Order!” that rose to bedlam, through the S ’s and T ’s to the end. Then suddenly, seeming to gather all the power of his huge body, projecting all the force of his commanding personality, and raising the voice that could fill any hall when he wanted, he announced that he would now state his reasons and pronounce his ruling. The House fell quiet, as a cat quiets with twitching tail before its spring.
Reed cited the constitutional power of the House to compel attendance of members by a sergeant at arms. This power was meaningless, he said, if members refused, though present, to be counted toward a quorum. Within the intention of the Constitution, “attendance is enough. If more were needed the Constitution would have provided for more.”
“The Chair thereupon rules that there is a quorum present within the meaning of the Constitution.”
Tumult even worse than before followed. Breckinridge of Kentucky demanded a point of order on the ground that the Chair had no right to make such a ruling. “The Chair overrules the point of order,” declared Reed coolly.
“I appeal the decision of the Chair!” shouted Breckinridge.
“I move to lay the appeal on the table,” quickly interposed an alert Republican, Payson of Illinois. As this motion, if carried, would have shut off debate, the Democrats foamed with rage. A hundred of them “were on their feet howling for recognition,” wrote Dunn of the AP. Little Joe Wheeler, a famous former Confederate cavalry general, unable to reach the front because of the crowded aisles, came down from the rear, “leaping from desk to desk as an ibex leaps from crag to crag.” As the excitement grew wilder, the only Democrat not on his feet was a huge representative from Texas who sat in his seat significantly whetting a bowie knife on his boot.
Upon Payson’s motion another Republican, Butterworth of Ohio, said he believed “we should have debate” on such an important matter. He was supported by McKinley. Although there was a real possibility that tradition-tied members of his own party might desert, Reed allowed it. The debate was to last four days, with the Democrats fighting every inch of the way, insisting on readings of every word of the Journal, on appeals and points of order and roll calls, each of which was met by Reed imperturbably counting off the silent members as present and evoking each time further infuriated defiance. Tension broke briefly when Representative Spinola of New York, pointing to a picture of the siege of Yorktown on the wall, accused the Speaker of counting the Hessians in the background to make up his quorum. Otherwise, “members rushed madly about the floor, the scowl of battle upon their brows…shouting in a mad torrent of eloquent invective.”
They called Reed tyrant, despot, and dictator, hurling epithets like stones, even threatening to pull him bodily from the chair. “Decorum,” lamented a reporter, “was altogether forgotten.” The clamor of the Democrats moved one Republican, Landis of Indiana, to suggest that if members across the aisle “shouted until the acoustics bled, it was prima facie evidence that they were in the vicinity and could be counted.” Infected by the passion on the floor, visitors and correspondents in the galleries leaned over the railings to “shake their fists at the Speaker” and join in the abuse and profanity. Whatever their initial doubts, Republicans, stung to partisan emotion, cheered and applauded and whistled as each tactic tried by the Democrats was ruled out of order by Reed. The angrier they became, the cooler he remained, bulking hugely in the chair, “serene as a summer morning.”
Although his secretary saw him in his private room during an interval, gripping the desk and shaking with suppressed rage, he never gave a sign in the Hall to show that the vicious abuse touched him. He maintained an iron control, “cool and determined as a highwayman,” said the New York Times .