I think the basic problem with democracy is that humans are too darn clever for it to ever work efficently. Consider the lesser genius of old John Q. Adams (above), son of a founding father, who, after one term in the White House, won a seat in the House of Repesentatives, which he occupied for another 17 years as “Old Man Eloquent”. Congressman Adams first dragged slavery onto the House floor for open debate, and then engineered the first compromise which delayed the Civil War for forty years - a pretty clever guy. But it was also J.Q. Adams who was clever enough to insist he should not be counted as “present” if he refused to respond when his vote was called for. It was a matter of principle to John Q, and a matter of temprament. He was just too old to stand up and walk out of the chamber every time someone asked him to vote on something he wanted to avoid voting on. How could he predict that two generations later, in the hands of hack politicians, this principle would be used to thwart democracy?
They called it a “Silent Quorum”. By October of 1893, when the Senate was trying to repeal price supports for silver, which were costing taxpayers millions of dollars every year, this procedure had become a monster whenever the majority was razor thin. Without a quorum present, (half the membership plus one) no vote was legal, so by remaining silent when their names were called, the minority could “fillibuster” any action they wanted to avoid losing on. It was a manuever which one particular House member described as a “...peculiar art of metaphysics which admits of corporeal presence and parliamentary absence”. That year, over two days, the U.S. Senate tried 39 times to remove price supports for silver. And every time the quorum evaporated. A decade later the obstructionists had so honed their craft that the same particular House member calculated that the House of Representatives spent “...a whole month...calling over our own names”. Usually the bills being fillerbusted were either dropped, or the delay and deal making required to get them passed held the Congress up to public ridicule. Who ever heard of such a thing?
The 'particular' Congressman who finally broke the filibuster of silence was a fourteen year veteran who knew the lower house of Congress well enough to describe it as “A gelatinous existence, the scorn of all vertebrate animals”. He owned the biggest head in politics (in more ways than one) and the sharpest wit in the Washington, at the time. Fifty year old Thomas Brackett Reed (above) was, said a critic, as “ambitious as Lucifer”. He was also a giant - 6'3” tall and 300 pounds – who inspired one who saw him strolling to say in awe, “How narrow he makes the sidewalk look.” Republican Thomas Reed once lamented in his measured Maine drawl, “We live in a world of sin and sorrow. Otherwise there would be no Democratic Party.” When accused of mockery by a Democrat, Reed responded, “I will say to the gentleman that if I ever ‘made light’ of his remarks, it is no more than he ever made of them himself.” Reed described two politicans who annoyed him, this way; “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.” He was imperious and dictitorial even with friends - a small “d” democratic Robespierre.
Like all political revolutions, newly-elected Speaker Reed's, was inspired by necessity. Specifically, on 23 January 1890, he received the Committee on Elections report concerning the 4th district of West Virginia. The Democratic Governor had thrown out the results from two polling places and declared Democrat James Jackson the winner. The loser, Republican Charles Smith, had appealed to congress. The Congressional Committee's Republican majority had labeled the governor's actions so outrageous that it “seems like a farce to argue about it” and recommended giving the seat to Smith. As expected the Democrats wanted to argue about it. Technically Reed had three more than the 166 Republicans needed to push through Smith's election. But if three or more of his own party were out sick or away from the floor Reed's working majority would fall to the “tyranny of the minority”. Thomas Reed was determined to do something about that.
Before the session was to begin that noon, on Wednesday, 29 January, 1890, Speaker Reed called the two ranking Republican members of the election committee into the hallway behind the Speakers podium, known as the Speakers' Lobby. There Reed warned Joe Cannon from Illinois (above) and William McKinley from Ohio that even with two Republicans dragged from their sick beds, what with several still out sick, one dead and another home with a dying wife, the Democrats could be expected to use a 'Silent Quorum' to delay or even kill action on their report. But Reed had a plan. What he did not tell this allies was that he had recently secured a partnership in a private law firm, in case his plot blew up in his face and he was forced to resign from the Congress. Representative Cannon asked when the Speaker intended upon launching his plan. Reed responded simply, “Now”, and he strode into the chamber.
After the preliminaries for the opening of a session, Edward McPherson, the House clerk, called for a vote on the report of the election committee. The initial results were 162 yeas, 3 nays and 163 not voting. The Democrats immediately called for a “quorum call”. Again Mr. McPherson read out the roll call, pausing after each of the 332 names for a response. All 162 Republicans in the chamber answered “present”. Not a single Democrat in the room lifted his voice. The “Silent Quorum” had again triumphed - or so it seemed. But then Speaker Reed announced ponderously, “The Chair directs the Clerk to record the names of the following members as present and refusing to vote.” And slowly he began to read off the names he had marked down as being in the room.
According to the Associated Press reporter who was present, “Pandemonium broke loose...wild excitement, burning indignation, scathing denunciation...” When Reed called his name, the Democratic war horse William Breckinridge bellowed over the mob, “I deny the power of the Speaker and denounce it as revolutionary!” By now Democrats were spilling into the aisle and pressing toward the podium, “...as if they intended to mob the Speaker.” But imperious, “utterly fearless”, and (said the New York Times) as “cool and determined as a highwayman,” Speaker Reed deigned not to acknowledge their outrage. He just kept reading the the names of the no longer silent minority.
When he called out, “Mr. McCreary”, the sexagenarian ex-Governor of Kentucky and ex-Confederate Colonel, James Bennett McCreary (above), shouted up at the podium, “I deny your right, Mr. Speaker, to count me as present!” Unexpectedly, Thomas Reed paused, and the entire bedlam paused as well, sucking in a breath of anticipation. Gazing down impassivily from atop the massive podium, the New England Buddha pronounced, “The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman is present. Does he deny it?” Representive McCreay was nonplussed. And calmly Reed continued with his roll call of the principled “absent”. And when he had finished, over the din and angry shouts which again tore the air, he announced he would now give his reasons for the revolution he had just launched.
The Constitution, in Article One, section five, said Reed, dictates that each house of Congress could “...compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner, and under such penalties as each house may provide.” Speaker Reed argued, “If members can be present and refuse to (be)....counted as a quorum, that provision would seem to be entirely negated. Inasmuch as the Constitution only provides for their attendance, that attendance is enough. If more was needed the Constitution would have provided for more.” His words were not going to sway the losing side, but then that was not whom Reed was speaking to. “Are elections a farce and is government by the people a juggle?” he asked. “Do we marshal our tens of millions at the polls for sport? If there be anything in popular government it means that whenever the people have elected one party to take control of the.House or the Senate, that party shall have both the power and the responsibility. If that is not the effect, what is the use of the election?”
Having said his peace, Mr. Reed intoned, “The Chair thereupon rules that there is a quorum present within the meaning of the Constitution.” Breckinridge demanded to make a point of order. Reed dismissed him, saying. “The Chair overrules the point of order”, without even hearing it. “I appeal the decision of the Chair,” shouted the old war horse. Interjected the Republican Lewis Payson from Ilinois' 9th district, “I move to lay the appeal on the table”. And with a Republican second, the Congress now debated the very idea of Reed's revolution.
It went on for three bitter, angry, frustrated days. And from atop the pyramid of the podium Thomas Reed sat impassive, “serene as a summer morning”, rendering Parlimentary decisions which kept the debate moving. Speaker Reed used his gavel so often, he broke it (above). Charles Landis, the Indiana Republican, insisted that Reed “...did not gag debate, he simply....thought that a man who had a private balloon to inflate should hire a field.” If the Democrats “shouted until the acoustics bled,” wrote Landis, that was merely “prima facie evidence that they were in the vicinity”. In the beginning Republicans were not united, but the Democratic reaction had forced the doubters into the battle line. Even the one Texas Democrat who stayed seated while ominously wetting his bowie knife, helped to unite Reed's Republican troops.
Thomas Reed came out of this debate forever bearing the tag of “Czar Reed”. But he also won his point. On Monday, 3 February 1890, the Democrats admitted defeat and simply walked out of the chamber (above). This left the Republicans with just 165 votes - one short of a quorum. An hour later, Republican Joe Sweeny of Iowa, having raced from the train station, walked into the chamber and announced, “One more, Mr. Speaker”. And with that a quorum was achieved. And the reason for the drama (if anybody still remembered), Charles Smith, was officially elected to the 4th district House seat for West Virginia, by 166 votes to 0. Twenty-six days later the United States Supreme Court rejected the Democratic appeal, and the matter was settled for at least a generation.
"Reed's Rules" gave the Republicans the power to fully enact their programs. And the public fully rejected them. In the election of 1890 Democrats gained the clear and working majority both sides had wanted, and immediately discarded Reed's Rules. Reed's observation on this was, “The House has more sense than anyone in it.” Two years later, the Republicans re-gained ground and it was the Democrats who were facing a intransigent minority, lead by Thomas Reed. The Democrats were forced to now accept and use Reed's Rules for themselves. In response, Thomas Reed said only, “I congratulate the Fifty-third Congress.” And he meant it.
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