November 24, 2013

Washington Notebook: Mainer was historic foe of filibuster

In 1890, House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed, a Republican, helped pave the way for the current ‘majority rules’ ethic in the chamber.

WASHINGTON — To historians, he was a master parliamentarian who changed the party dynamics of Congress in ways still evident more than a century later.

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This portrait of Thomas Brackett Reed hangs outside the Speaker’s Lobby just outside the U.S. House chamber.

Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

To his opponents, however, the man from Maine who wielded the House speaker’s gavel with ferocious effectiveness was known derisively as “Czar Reed.”

Nearly 125 years before Thursday’s historic vote to limit the Senate filibuster, House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Portland “broke the filibuster” in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1890 and, in the process, enshrined the absolute “majority rules” doctrine that still dominates there today.

“He ran roughshod over the minority,” rewriting House rules to ensure the success of the Republican agenda, said former U.S. House Historian Ray Smock. But Smock said setting aside debates over Reed’s attitude toward the out-of-power party, he ranks the quick-witted Maine Republican among the “giants” of House history.

“I think he is one of the greatest speakers the body every produced,” said Smock, who is now director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University in West Virginia. “He was a man of great principle and learning.”

The filibuster is thought of today as a quirk of the Senate, allowing the minority party to delay or block votes on bills and people supported by the majority. Its defenders insist that respecting the rights of the minority party makes the Senate special.

“We’re not the House of Representatives. We’re the Senate,” a frustrated Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Thursday after Democrats eliminated filibusters on most presidential nominees.

But filibusters used to be common in the House – that is, until Reed triggered the “Battle of Reed’s Rules” in January 1890.

At the time, the minority party had a unique stalling strategy.

The chamber required a quorum (a minimum number of people) to conduct official business. Members were counted by voice vote during quorum calls and roll calls. So members of the minority would prevent a quorum – and thereby bring business to a halt – simply by refusing to respond to their names even though they were standing on the House floor.

Reed excelled at this tactic while in the minority. Once he was House speaker, though, Reed opted to change the rules by instructing House clerk and fellow Portlander Asher Hinds to count whoever was present.

Outraged Democrats screamed objections and then tried to hide under desks and flee the floor until Reed had the chamber doors locked. It took three days of parliamentary battles but “Reed’s Rules” were adopted.

“From the Speaker’s chair early in 1890, he unilaterally stripped the legislative minority of the power to obstruct the law-making agenda of the majority,” wrote author James Grant in his 2011 book, “Mr. Speaker! The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed: The Man Who Broke the Filibuster.” “Enraged Democrats branded him a ‘czar,’ (an) epithet Reed seemed not to mind at all.”

In a much bigger sense, what Reed did was mark the beginning of the modern House with a more powerful speaker and a weaker minority. While House speakers since have wielded the gavel with a different style, recent events show Reed’s principle of true majority rule lives on.

Former Speaker Denny Hastert, R-Ill., expanded on Reed’s philosophy by insisting that only bills supported by a majority of the majority party would even be brought up for a vote. Current Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has largely adhered to the “Hastert Rule,” much to Democrats’ chagrin. And former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pushed through the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) without a single Republican vote.

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