April 24: Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902) – House Speaker From Maine Known For “Reed’s Rules” – Guest Essayists: Joseph Postell & Samuel Postell

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Once upon a time the House of Representatives was dominated by party leaders, especially the Speaker of the House.  The Speaker had extensive power to set the agenda and extensive tools to enforce that agenda.  While every representative in the House was elected by a distinct group of constituents, the majority was united in pursuing a common goal thanks to this leadership.

The man who was most responsible for this party organization in Congress was Thomas Brackett Reed. Sometimes called “Czar Reed” because of his immense power, he was primarily responsible for the implementation of the “Reed Rules” adopted in 1890.

A Republican from Maine, Reed was Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1889-1891 and again from 1895-1899.  He was known for his quick wit in legislative debates and his understanding and deployment of parliamentary procedure.  During one legislative debate, a Democrat invoked Henry Clay’s quote that he would rather be right than be president.  Reed replied, “The gentleman needn’t worry. He will never be either.”  Henry Cabot Lodge later called Reed “the finest, most effective debater that I have ever seen or heard.”

Reed approached the rules of the House of Representatives with a simple, fundamental principle in mind.  “The best system,” as he put it, “is to have one party govern and the other party watch.”  And this system required two things: a strong, unified, cohesive set of parties, and procedures that allowed the majority to rule rather than be delayed continually by the minority.

Upon being narrowly elected Speaker over William McKinley, Reed set out to implement this system in the House.  When Reed gained the gavel, the House did almost nothing on an average day. Through the use of dilatory motions and tactics (uses of parliamentary procedure to delay the majority from getting things done) Democrats in the House were able to obstruct the Republican Party prior to Reed’s speakership.

One of these tactics was the “disappearing quorum.”  Because the House must have a quorum to conduct business, the Democrats who were in the minority would frequently object that a quorum was lacking.  In response, the House would have to call the roll, which caused considerable delay.  In addition to the delay, the rules of the House stated that if a person did not respond, they would not be counted as present.  Therefore, Democrats in the minority would simply refuse to answer the roll call, making the quorum “disappear.”

The disappearing quorum was Reed’s first target.  In January of 1890, facing a disappearing quorum over a contested election, Reed ordered the House Clerk to record Democrats not responding as present. In response, many Democrats scrambled under their desks to hide from the Clerk, and they objected vigorously to Reed’s change.  Reed ordered everyone in the room to be counted, and after several days, his decisions were upheld and the disappearing quorum was over.

Reed’s rules changes put the majority, acting through the Speaker as its leader, firmly in control of the House.  The Reed Rules limited the use of dilatory tactics, lowered quorum requirements, and put the majority in charge of considering and amending legislation.  Reed explained the rationale for these changes: “The object of a parliamentary body is action, and not stoppage of action.  Hence, if any member or set of members undertakes to oppose the orderly progress of business…it is the right of the majority to refuse to have those motions entertained, and to cause the public business to proceed.”

The Speaker’s powers had also grown during the late 19th Century, so that the Speaker was able to use his power, combined with the majority’s power to act, to exert tremendous control over the House.  Three of the Speaker’s powers, in particular, were critical: (1) the power to appoint all members and chairs of committees, (2) the power of recognition, which allowed him to recognize members wishing to speak on the floor of the House, and (3) the chairmanship of the Rules Committee, which was nearly the only way that a bill could actually reach the floor of the House for an up-or-down vote.

At the time, many people objected to the accumulation of power in the majority, and in the majority party leadership.  They called Speakers “czars” and tyrants.  The New York Times ran headlines such as: “Bolder in his Tyranny: Heaping Fresh Indignity on the Minority: Reed Confirmed as Dictator of the House – Refusing Even to Recognize the Democrats.”  But Reed defended these changes as necessary reforms to allow the majority party, which received its powers from the people, to implement the laws that the people desired.

There were many advantages to the Reed Rules.  They promoted party accountability, which meant that the people could be confident that if they gave one party or the other a majority in the House, legislation would follow.  In addition, power stayed with Congress, rather than shifting over to the President, because the House set the legislative agenda instead of waiting for the President to suggest which bills should be passed.

Today’s Congress accomplishes a lot less than the one over which Reed presided because party leaders no longer have the powers that Reed created.  Majority party cohesion has been undermined, and the leaders of the majority party are increasingly incapable of advancing necessary reforms.  As a result, the people increasingly look to the President.  Studying Reed’s vision for the House of Representatives reveals another possibility: with stronger parties, Congress can maintain its own authority, and accomplish the business of the people more efficiently, than it does today.  Reed and his rules illustrate a potential solution for the disappearing role of Congress in contemporary American politics.

Joseph Postell is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.  He is the author of the forthcoming book Bureaucracy in America: The Administrative State’s Challenge to Constitutional Government.  He is also the editor of Rediscovering Political Economy and Toward an American Conservatism: Constitutional Conservatism during the Progressive Era. Follow him on Twitter @JoePostell.

Samuel Postell is a Ph.D. student at the University of Dallas.

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April 13: Henry Clay (1777-1852) – House Speaker, Whig Party Leader, Kentucky Senate Member – Guest Essayist: Sam Postell

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Henry Clay: The Man for a Crisis

Henry Clay led a political career that spanned almost fifty years and was Speaker of the House for almost ten. According to some, Clay was a hero, and to others, he was a villain. For example Abraham Lincoln described Clay as his “Beaux ideal of a statesman”, while Andrew Jackson described him as “the basest, meanest, scoundrel that ever disgraced the image of his god”, and “void of good morals… ambitious and regardless of truth when it comes in the way of his ambition”. Although opinions regarding his character are conflicted, all understood that he shaped Congress in fundamental ways. He was the first to understand that Congress was in need of leadership and order to be considered an important power rather than a mere servant of the president.

Before Clay became speaker he was nominated to fill a vacancy in the Senate. After his second term he decided to leave the Senate and run for election to the U.S. House of Representatives. As he announced his candidacy all other candidates withdrew their names from the ballot.

Before Clay had attended a single session as a Representative in the House, he was elected Speaker on the first ballot. Many representatives in the House were intimated by John Randolph, a Representative from Virginia who “ran roughshod” over the proceedings of the House. He would often bring his hunting dogs into the House, and he would filibuster in order to derail its proceedings. It was said that Randolph “disregards all rules” and Clay’s supporters decided that the Speaker “must be a man who can meet John Randolph on the floor or on the field, for he may have to do both” (Sargent, Public men and Events, I,130).

Henry Clay fulfilled the wishes of the members of the 12th Congress and was reelected Speaker for the next ten years. The clearest demonstration of his promise to enforce, and even manipulate, the rules of the House is his role in the passage of the Missouri Compromise. There were three separate bills to be considered: first, Missouri’s application for statehood as a slave state, second, Maine’s application for statehood as a free state, and third was an amendment prohibiting slavery north of the 36’30’ parallel with the exception of Missouri.

The House at first rejected the bill that tied the three together. Clay decided that he would separate the three bills and attempt to pass each individually. On February 8, 1820, Clay gave an unrecorded speech that lasted over four hours attempting to persuade the Northern abolitionists to pass the compromise in order to quell Southern threats of secession. Although deliberation upon the three bills lasted the entire month of February, on March 2nd each bill was passed individually.

However, Clay’s work was not yet done. John Randolph rose in the House and asked that the vote be reconsidered. Henry Clay announced that it was late and that the motion would be postponed until the following day. The next day Randolph again rose to have the vote reconsidered. Clay ruled him out of order until the routine business had concluded. Meanwhile, Clay signed the Missouri Bill and had the clerk deliver it to the Senate for a vote. When Randolph rose once more Clay announced that the bill could not be retrieved- the vote was final. On March 6th President Monroe signed the Missouri bill. Clay’s role in the passage of the Missouri bill demonstrates a principle that survives to this day: the principle of majority rule and the Speaker’s role in ensuring that the majority cannot be undermined by the actions of a single representative or a faction.

Later in the Senate, Clay endeavored to advance the same principle but with less success. Not only was Henry Clay an actor in the questions of the Missouri Compromise and the War of 1812, but he also played a role in the debate regarding the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. Early in his career he argued that the National Bank was unconstitutional, but after experiencing the difficulties of financing the War of 1812 he began to view it as a necessity. Andrew Jackson claimed that Clay was inconsistent, to which Clay responded in an impassioned speech claiming that “the constitution has not changed… I was at first wrong.”

When the Senate came to vote on the Bank Bill in June of 1841, Clay became upset to see many representatives dragging their heels. Rather than discuss and vote upon the bill, many members of the minority filibustered, speaking on issues not pertaining to the bill. This led Henry Clay to introduce a motion to amend the rules to prevent the minority from delaying the proceedings of the Senate. Many members of the minority party, included John Calhoun and president pro-tempore William King, argued that the minority had the Constitutional right to speak in session, and that any attempt to “gag” members of the minority was unconstitutional. Clay eventually buckled under the pressure of the other members and relented on his motion to change the Senate rules; however, the Bank Bill was finally voted upon and passed the Senate on July 28th.

Not only was Henry Clay the man for a crisis and a controversial figure in his day, but he left his mark on the way that Congress deliberates upon and passes legislation. Clay was the first to understand that Congress was in need of leadership if it were to be understood as an important power of the government rather than a mere servant of the president. Although he was a man of action, his speeches bequeath a rich knowledge of constitutional theory that allow us to appreciate the importance of the rules and orders of the legislature.

Sam Postell is a doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Dallas.

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