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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 secret of his self-possession, as he told a friend long after, was that he had his mind absolutely made up as to what he would do if the House did not sustain him. “I would simply have left the Chair and resigned the Speakership and my seat in Congress.” He had a place waiting for him for the private practice of law in Elihu Root’s New York firm and “I had made up my mind that if political life consisted in sitting helplessly in the Speaker’s chair and seeing the majority helpless to pass legislation, I had had enough of it and was ready to step down and out.” Coming to such a decision, he said, “you have made yourself equal to the worst” and are ready for it. This has a very “soothing” effect on the spirit.
It did more than soothe: it gave him an imbedded strength that men who fear the worst, or will yield principles to avoid the worst, can never possess. It endowed him with a moral superiority over the House which members, without knowing why, could sense in the atmosphere.
Gaining the floor, Crisp of Georgia opened the debate with a massive attack on the proposal to establish a quorum by “ocular demonstration.” How would anyone know that the Speaker would not see forty more members than were actually present? “Who,” he thundered, “will control his seeing?”
“The majority,” neatly put in La Follette of Wisconsin, “by sustaining or refusing to sustain his decision.” This interruption failed to stem a torrent of oratory in which Crisp invoked “our ancient usages and customs…opinions of the Fathers…sacredness of the Constitution and rights of the American people.” Next, Springer denounced the Chair’s ruling as “tyranny, simple and undiluted, an outrage upon the House and the American people.” Breckinridge denounced it as “clearly corrupt,” evoking howls of approval, and delighted with the effect of his accusation, embellished it. “Both usurpatory, revolutionary, and corrupt,” he charged. From then on Reed’s accusers invoked the alternate images of revolutionist and tyrant, preferring on the whole the latter. “I denounce you,” shrieked Bland of Missouri, “as the worst tyrant that ever presided over a deliberative body.” O’Ferrall of Virginia warned that the people’s representatives were not to be silenced “by the gavel of a tyrant and his cold and freezing eye.” Improving even on this he added, “It has been reserved for the year 1890 and the Fifty-first Congress to produce the first dictator since the head of British tyranny was bruised.” Among all the variations on the word “tyrant,” “czar” emerged as the favorite, embodying for its time the image of unrestrained autocracy, and as “Czar” Reed the Speaker was known thereafter.
Exhausted, the House adjourned, only to reopen next day in immediate uproar over conflicting motions to adjourn, to approve the Journal, to raise the “previous question” and as many other delaying points of procedure as the Democrats could devise. Still outwardly tranquil, Reed caught each parliamentary ball, batted each pitch, declared fouls, and umpired his own decisions, always maneuvering the proceedings from mere battle over procedure to debate on the issues. His own cohorts were rallying to the defense. It was an absurdity on the face of it, declared Butterworth in a brilliant speech, if a member “by merely closing his mouth becomes constructively absent.” The silent quorum, he said, hurling back upon the opposition their own word, “is the weapon of the revolutionist. It is the weapon of anarchy.”
“The Speaker sees you,” he went on, “we see you, nay the country sees you. Yet the country starves to death by your inaction.” The minority claimed it was “not participating” if silent. “Why, the distinguished Speaker might as well sit down upon my lean friend from Alabama and against his protest say, ‘I am not participating.’ ” Butterworth was sure that “the brother thus sat upon would have the liveliest sense of the fact that the Speaker was aggressively participating though he were silent as a millstone.”
Somewhat less effective was Representative McKinley, who, striving to please as usual, inadvertently yielded the floor, and had to be prompted by Reed, “The gentleman from Ohio declines to be interrupted.”
“I decline to be interrupted,” echoed McKinley, valiantly closing the breach.
As, at each juncture, Reed implacably counted heads and repeated his formula, “A constitutional quorum is present to do business,” the fury and frustration of the Democrats mounted. Maddened beyond discretion, Bynum of Indiana burst out against “the arbitrary, the outrageous, the damnable rulings of the Chair” and was ruled subject to censure for unparliamentary language. Ordered to stand before the bar of the House, he was followed down the aisle by the entire Democratic membership breathing maledictions and demanding to share Bynum’s censure in a body. To a spectator “it looked for a moment as if they intended to mob the Speaker.”
Gazing at them coldly, Reed waited in silence. When he judged he could be heard he said simply, without accusation or argument, “Mr. Bynum, I now pronounce the censure of the House upon you.” So unexpectedly unprovocative was it that the tumultuous mob of Democrats was suddenly deflated and dispersed to its seats.