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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
At this point their strategy changed. It having become evident that Reed could and would establish a quorum on every count, the Democrats decided to absent themselves in actuality, counting on the inability of the Republicans to round up a quorum of themselves alone. As one by one they slipped out, Reed, divining their intention, ordered the doors locked. At once there followed a mad scramble to get out before the next vote. Losing “all sense of personal or official dignity,” Democrats hid under desks and behind screens. Representative Kilgore of Texas kicked open a locked door to make his escape and to make “KiIgore’s Kick” the delight of cartoonists.
On the fifth day, Monday, February 3, the Democrats absented themselves altogether, and when a vote was called on Smith vs. Jackson the Republicans were still short of a quorum. Two of their number were brought in on cots from their sickbeds. There was still one too few. One member was known to be on his way to Washington. Suddenly a door opened, as a reporter told it, and “there was a flash of red whiskers and a voice saying, ‘One more, Mr. Speaker.’ ” Sweney of Iowa was counted in, the quorum was filled, and Smith vs. Jackson settled by a vote of 166-0. The battle was over. Democrats sullenly filed back to their seats. The Rules Committee reported out a new set of rules, composed, needless to say, and imposed by Reed.
Known thereafter as Reed’s Rules and adopted on February 14, they provided among other things that: 1) All members must vote; 2) 100 shall constitute a quorum; 3) All present shall be counted; 4) No dilatory motion shall be entertained, the definition of what was dilatory to be left to the judgment of the Speaker.
When a subsequent act of the Fifty-first Congress was tested in the Supreme Court on the ground that it had been passed by a quorum unconstitutionally established, Reed’s ruling that all present may be counted was upheld by the Court’s decision of February 29, 1892 ( U.S. v. Ballin ).
Five years later Theodore Roosevelt wrote that in destroying the silent filibuster, Reed’s reform was of “far greater permanent importance” than any piece of legislation it brought to enactment at the time. Reed knew this as soon as he had won. In his speech closing the Fifty-first Congress he said “the verdict of history” was the only one worth recording and he was confident of its outcome “because we have taken here so long a stride in the direction of responsible government.”
More immediate than a verdict by history—and then widely considered its equivalent—was a portrait by Sargent. Commissioned as a tribute to the Speaker by his Republican colleagues, it was a memorable failure—although the painter and his subject, recognizing in each other two superior personages, felt mutually attracted. “His exterior does not seem to correspond to his spirit,” complained Sargent, voicing a difficulty frequently felt by others. “What is a painter to do? I could have made a better picture with a less remarkable man. He has been delightful.” Confessing himself under the “dreadful thrall” which overcame all Mr. Sargent’s subjects, Reed refused to be in the least disturbed by unkindly comment on the portrait. When it was hung in the Speaker’s Lobby one critic observed, “He is supposed to be in the act of counting a quorum but in fact has just been inveigled into biting a green persimmon.”
The death of the silent quorum was recognized by all, whether they considered it a victory or disaster, as due to Reed’s personal generalship and, in Roosevelt’s words, to his “extraordinary ability and iron courage.” It was discussed in parliamentary bodies all over the world and at home made him a leading political figure and obvious candidate for the presidential nomination in 1892. But his time had not yet come, as he correctly judged, for when asked if he thought his party would nominate him, he replied, “They might do worse and I think they will.”
They did. Reed’s “czardom” was still resented, his sarcasm and sneers had made enemies; nor did his disgust for deals, his refusal to woo the public with smiles and handshakes, or politicians with promises, enlarge his circle of supporters. The party regulars preferred to choose between the plumed, if flawed, knight and public idol, James G. Blaine, and the incumbent Harrison, incorruptible but sour, known as “the White House iceberg,” both of whom Reed despised with no concealment whatever. He considered Blaine’s elastic morals a disgrace to Maine and never forgave Harrison for appointing Blaine’s nominee, a personal enemy of his own, as Collector of Portland, Reed’s home town. Thereafter he refused to enter the White House or meet Harrison until the day he died. As Speaker, however, his political principles were stronger than personal dislike, and only his expert maneuvering to keep the free-silver bill from enactment saved President Harrison from the unpopular necessity of vetoing it.