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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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