View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Friday, November 14, 2003


Changing the Senate rules on filibusters is going to be tough, I think. The alternation of power makes a majority today less likely to abuse what is transient power. But even then, if they get fed up enough and think they have the votes, the Democrats will put up fierce institutional and procedural resistance.

We've done this before. Over 100 years ago, the House of Representatives had something called a "silent absence," and required a quorum of an absolute majority to conduct business. When majorities were slight, as they were at the end of the last century, like today, it as difficult to put together a majority of the total House to conduct business. Worse yet, the minority could show up, debate, and then call for a quorum and just not answer when their names were called. denying a quorum for a vote.

Speaker Thomas Reed of Maine, also a Republican, moved to get rid of this, by calling a quorum and then counting present the Democrats who refused to answer. All hell broke loose, there was almost a riot on the floor, there *was* a riot on the floor, before three days of debate on the matter were immediately scheduled. Eventually, the Republicans prevailed, and the House was able to conduct business. Barbara Tuchman has a detailed, and vivid account of the whole thing in her The Proud Tower, which is well worth reading, anyway.

The point is, Reed was a powerful Speaker as well as a powerful speaker, a brilliant debater, a master parliamentarian, and a battleship of a man with tremendous presence and force, and he still only barely pulled it off. He did so by knowing how many votes he had, with meticulous planning, and by catching the opposition by surprise. I'm not sure that we have that sort of leadership in the Senate right now.

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