House Speaker Thomas B. Reed (R-Me)
Ours is not the only do-nothing Congress. Things were even worse around 1890 when Thomas B. Reed of Maine was Speaker of the House for the Republican majority. He had a lot more to contend with than semi-illiterate white senior citizens with teabags dangling from their tricorn hats: Back then, members of the House would loll around in their seats reading newspapers or filling their spittoons.
To avoid having to do anything, they had their own equivalent of the filibuster, which, as you know, is a Senate thing. They would ask for a quorum call. According to the Constitution, a predetermined minimum number of representatives had to be present for the business of the House to be conducted. But what if, when his name was called, a Representative didn’t answer. At the time, the Speaker just marked him absent, even though he was clearly visible fifty feet away doing a crossword puzzle. This practice was referred to as the “disappearing quorum.” Then, as now, a minority could stop the House cold.
What Reed did to break the quorum was very simple. According to National Public Radio, which interviewed James Grant on the publication of his biography of Reed (cover illustrated above):
Reed decided to take action. He was a master parliamentarian, Grant says, able to play the rulebook almost like an instrument. And he changed history with just 17 words: “The Chair directs the Clerk to record the following names of members present and refusing to vote.”
“That was it,” Grant says. “Those seventeen words were the invitation to perfect pandemonium,” as the minority Democrats realized their disappearing quorum tactic wouldn’t work anymore — and that the majority party would now be able to start expanding the size and scope of government. The changes meant business could be done more efficiently, so more and more business began to be done.
Back then, to be a Republican was a good thing. Why? Because the “Solid South” was 100% Democrat. After Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, the Confederate states switched their allegiance to the Republican party and decided to apply a wrecking ball to it, which they proceeded to do.