View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Wednesday, May 14, 2003
The filibuster debate also reminds me of a similar problem in the US House of Representatives in 1889. No, I wasn't around then, and neither was the versatile Barbara Tuchman. But she tells a story better than just about any historian I know, and told the story of one of the great transformative periods in Western history, 1894-1914, in vignettes from each of the major powers. Two of the chapters in The Proud Tower concern legislative refrom - the House of Lords giving up the veto, and the House of Representatives changing its quorum rules. The latter is especially instructive.

Speaker Thomas Reed, Republican of Maine, was one of the few true patricians in his day to enter politics, a master of the rules of procedure, and a virtually unbeatable debater with as sharp a wit as anyone. He had grown frustrated with the fact that the minority, not necessarily partisan, could stifle legislation in the House while continuing to debate it, by refusing to answer quorum calls even while sitting there on the floor of the chamber. (I'll bet the Texas Democrats wish they could do that.) He decided to use his discretion as Speaker, a post which then had most of the powers that Committee Chairman have today, to change the rule, and instructed the Cler to count members present even if they didn't reply:

"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 and audience, then blandly spoke: "The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman is present. Does he deny it?"

It's a colorful story, full of chaos, parliamentary maneuver, Democrats trying to leave and being physically restrained, and so forth. And not without risk to Speaker Reed, who wasn't sure even his own party would support him. But in the end, the moral is the same: the majority cannot be tyrannous, but must still be able to vote.

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