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Friday, April 10, 2015

Legislative Nostalgia, Part Four

       "The secret of his self-possession, as he told a friend long afterward, 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 helpless to pass legislation, I 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 embedded strength which 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.
       Now the Democrats, changing their strategy, 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 the Democrats 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, kicking open a locked door to make his escape, made 'Kilgore's Kick' the delight of cartoonists.
       On the fifth day, the Democrats absented themselves altogether and when a vote was called 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, and, as a reporter told it, '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 the vote recorded at 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 the Chairman.  Known thereafter as 'Reed's Rules and adopted on February 14, they provided among other things that (1)all members must vote;  (2)one hundred shall constitute a quorum;  (3)all present shall be counted;  and (4)no dilatory motion shall be entertained and the definition of what is dilatory to be left to the judgment of the Speaker.
       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 that '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, indeed, 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.  'He is supposed to be in the act of counting a quorum,' a critic observed, 'but in fact has just been inveigled into biting a green persimmon.'
       The death of the silent quorum was discussed in parliamentary bodies all over the world.  At home it made Reed 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 and his sarcasm had not made friends.  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 nominate the incumbent Harrison, incorruptible but sour, known as the 'White House Iceberg,'  whom Reed disliked with no concealment whatever.  When Harrison appointed as Collector of Portland, Reed's home town, a man Reed despised, he thereafter refused to enter the White House or meet Harrison until the day he died.
       When, in 1892, the Democrats won control of the House by so large a majority that they could always assemble a quorum among themselves, they triumphantly threw out Reed's reform.  He waited for history, not without some faith, as he use to say, that 'the House has more sense than anyone in it.'  History did not keep him waiting long.  In the next Congress, with the Democratic majority reduced by half and split over the currency and other heated issues, Reed enjoyed a delicious revenge.  Over and over he demanded roll calls and when Bland of Missouri stormed against this 'downright filibuster,' he countered instantly, 'Downright?  You mean upright.'  His control over his party, as minority leader no less than as Speaker, remained total.  'Gentlemen on that side blindly follow him,' Speaker Crisp said wistfully.  'You will hear them privately saying, 'Reed ought not to do that,' or 'This is wrong,' but when Reed says 'Do it,' they all step up and do it.'  When at last the Democrats had to give way, and for the sake of their own program, re-adopt his quorum-counting rule, Reed refrained from crowing.  'This scene here today is a more effective address than any I could make,' he said.  'I congratulate the Fifty-third Congress.'" The Proud Tower by Barbara W. Tuchman, pgs. 128-130.

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