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Saturday, April 04, 2015

Legislative Nostalgia, Part Three

       "In 1889, however, Theodore Roosevelt proved politically useful to {Speaker Thomas B.} Reed in his intra-party contest against McKinley, Joe Cannon and two others for the Speakership.  While ranching and hunting in the Northwest, Roosevelt campaigned vigorously, and with success, to ensure that the four new states which had just entered the Union--Washington, Montana and the two Dakotas--would send Republicans to the next Congress.  On his return to Washington he opened personal headquarters in a back room of the old Wormley Hotel where he 'rounded up' the new Congressmen'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.
       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.  He was determined, on taking up the gavel as Speaker, to put into effect a plan on which he had long deliberated, consulting no one, and on which he risked his political future.  He knew that the fight would focus upon him the nation's attention and also that if he failed his Congressional career would be over.  The stakes were high:  he would either break 'the tyranny of the minority' by which the House was paralyzed into a state of 'helpless inanity,' or he would resign.
       The system Speaker Reed had decided to challenge was known as the silent--or disappearing--quorum.  It was a practice whereby the minority party could prevent any legislation obnoxious to it by refusing a quorum, that is, by demanding a roll call and then remaining silent when their names were called.  Since the rules prescribed that a member's presence was established only by a viva voce reply to the roll, and since it required a majority of the whole to constitute a quorum, the silent filibuster could effectively stop the House from doing business.
      The recent election of 1888 had been a Republican victory in which for the first time in sixteen years one party controlled both Executive and Congress.  But by barely a hair.  The dour Benjamin Harrison was a minority President who had lost to Cleveland in popular vote and sat on that unstable throne so oddly carpentered by the electoral college system.  The Republican majority of 168-160 was wafer-thin, only three more than a quorum, which was set at 165.  With this the Republicans faced the task of enacting two major pieces of party legislation, the Mills Bill for revising the tariff and the Force Bill directed against the poll tax and other Southern devices to keep the Negroes from voting.  The Democrats were prepared to obstruct this legislation and also to prevent a vote on the seating of four Republicans, two of them Negroes, in contested elections from Southern districts.
       To Reed the issue was survival of representative government.  If the Democrats could prevent that legislation which the Republicans by virtue of their electoral victory could rightfully expect to enact, they would in effect be setting aside the verdict of the election.  The rights of the minority, he believed, were preserved by freedom to debate and to vote but when the minority was able to frustrate action by the majority, 'it becomes a tyranny.'  He believed that legislation, not merely deliberation, was the business of Congress.  The duty of the Speaker to his party and country was to see that that business was accomplished, not merely to umpire debate.
       The Speakership was a post of tremendous influence, still possessed of all the powers which in 1910, in the revolt against Joe Cannon, were to be transferred to the committees.  Since the Speaker was ex officio Chairman of the Committee on Rules, whose two Republican and two Democrat members cancelled each other out, and since he had the right to appoint all committees, the careers of members and the course of legislation depended upon his will.  In Reed's hands was now the 'power with responsibility,' and notwithstanding a famous dictum, power has other effects than only to corrupt:  it can also enlarge the understanding.  It sometimes begets greatness.  The Speaker's office, which the Washington Post called 'no less consequential than the Presidency,' could be the stepping stone to that ultimate peak.  Reed was not the man either to miss his opportunity or to meet it feebly.
       He reached his decision to attack the silent quorum, 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 Reed's known views on the silent filibuster it was clear that quorum-counting would be an issue in the new Congress.  REED WILL COUNT THEM, predicted a headline in the Washington Post, and the story beneath it said that even Mr. Cannon, Reed's closest lieutenant, was opposed to the attempt.  The Democrats were manning their defences.  Ex-Speaker Carlisle let it be known that any legislation enacted by a quorum which had not been established by a 'recorded vote' would be taken to court as unconstitutional.
       Reed, however, had satisfied himself that he would be upheld if it came to law, and on the attitude of his own party he was prepared to gamble.  He shrewdly judged that the Democrats in their rage would provoke the Republicans to rally to his support.  When the first of the contested elections appeared on the schedule for January 29 he was ready.  As expected, the Democrats raised a call of no quorum and demanded a roll call.  It produced 163 yeas, all Republican, two less than a quorum.  Reed's moment had come.  Without a flicker of expression on the great white moon face, 'the largest human face I ever saw,' as a colleague described it, without any quickening of the drawling voice, he announced, '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.  Instantly, according to a reporter, 'pandemonium broke loose.  The storm was furious. . . and it is to be doubted if ever there was such wild excitement, burning indignation, scathing denunciation and really dangerous conditions as existed in the House ' during the next five days.  Republicans were wildly applauding, all the Democrats were '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. Breckenridge 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!' irresistably 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 which could fill any hall when he wanted, he announced, 'The Chair thereupon rules that there is a quorum present within the meaning of the Constitution.'
       Tumult even worse than before followed.  Breckenridge 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 Breckenridge.
       '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 a reporter.  'Fighting Joe' Wheeler, the diminutive 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.  When a Republican member said he believed 'we should have debate' on such an important matter, 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 were met by Reed impeturbably counting off the silent members as present and evoking each time further infuriated defiance.  Once Representative McKinley, 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 implacably at each juncture Reed counted heads and repeated his formula, 'A Constitutional quorum is present to do business,' the fury and frustration of the Democrats mounted.  A group breathing maledictions advanced down the aisle threatening to pull him from the Chair and for a moment it looked to a spectator 'as if they intended to mob the Speaker.'  Reed remained unmoved.  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.  'Decorum,' lamented a reporter, 'was altogether forgotten.  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.  Among all the variants 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.  The angrier the Democrats became, the cooler Reed 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.  The Proud Tower by Barbara W. Tuchman, pgs. 124-28.

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