November 14, 2012

Greg Kesich: Angus King should bring a page of Maine history to D.C.

In the Senate, he should follow the example of the Mainer who ended the filibuster in the House.

By Greg Kesich gkesich@pressherald.com
Editorial Page Editor

Sen.-elect Angus King needs a new hero.

Since he arrived on the political scene in 1994, King and others have drawn parallels between him and another Maine governor and Brunswick resident – Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top, who ordered a bayonet charge at Gettysburg at just the right time, saving the Union.

Chamberlain was later selected by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to accept the South's surrender at Appomatox, which he did with humility and respect, honoring his vanquished enemy, setting the stage for the birth of a new nation.

As back stories for Maine governors go, that's pretty good.

And after his four terms in office were done, Chamberlain, then president of Bowdoin College, was called to take arms again, leading the state militia to keep order in Augusta while the votes were recounted in a corrupt gubernatorial election – which really beats King's RV tour of the national parks when it comes to impressive post-gubernatorial events.

But now that King is going to Washington, he needs a new historical figure to pattern himself after, and fortunately, Maine history has just the right one.

U.S. Rep. Thomas Brackett Reed from Maine's 1st District, two-time speaker of the House, presidential near miss and the greatest graduate Portland High School ever produced, is just the guy for the job.

The 300-pound "Czar Reed" (his statue strides atop the Western Prom if you want a peek) might not have cut as dashing a figure as the mustachioed Chamberlain. Reed spent the Civil War as an assistant paymaster on a Mississippi River gunboat, not leading bayonet charges. But he had the skills and ambition that the nation needed in his time and that it needs again today.

As the premier parliamentarian of his day, Reed ended the filibuster in the House of Representatives, bringing that body to majority rule just through the power of his personality.

How Reed did it is recounted in the terrific 2011 biography "Mr. Speaker!: The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, The Man Who Broke the Filibuster," by James Grant. This is a good read even if you don't find quorum calls and motions to adjourn entertaining. King should have a copy on his nightstand.

Reed's big achievement came in the 51st Congress, his first as speaker. Until then, members of the minority party could stop House business by refusing to answer a roll call. Without a quorum, the House could do nothing and would eventually adjourn.

After sitting through a decade of inaction, Reed knew what to do. When he was elected speaker in 1889, he had the clerk record the names of the members he saw who were actually present, giving the chamber the quorum it needed.

This uncorked three days of chaos, marked with threats of violence and bizarre arguments that would have made a great Monty Python skit a century later.

"The chair is making a statement of fact that the gentlemen from Kentucky is present," Reed replied to one outraged congressman. "Does he deny it?"

But the chaos came to an end and Congress discovered a process where the majority rules and, in Reed's words, "the minority watches."

The Senate still has its filibuster, glorified by Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," but it's not usually so heroic.

Now it is routine. Everything gets filibustered all the time, even noncontroversial appointments and motions to bring up bills for debate. It sounds fair-minded to say that both parties are guilty, but the Republican minority is using it more than it has ever been used before, and it is a key reason that Congress has approval ratings below 20 percent.

What would Reed tell King to do? First of all, get in the majority.

You don't have to agree with your party on everything. Reed, a Republican, certainly didn't, but the majority rules. King said he may announce as early as today which party he plans to caucus with, and there is no reason that he should join the Republican minority. He won't have any influence on the Senate rules unless he caucuses with the Democrats.

And Reed's lesson on the way to end the filibuster is just to end it. Procedural rules aren't in the Constitution. Reed didn't take a poll or convene a focus group. He made up his mind, took the lumps and survived.

Mr. King doesn't go to Washington with that kind of clout, but he could provide moderate cover to Democratic leaders who want to rein in the filibusterers.

It's not exactly a bayonet charge, but it could save the Union.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: gkesich@pressherald.com

 

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