When the House had a filibuster (a Repost)

Since the filibuster is back in the news–and hopefully because it’s about to die, once and for all–I’m reminded of the passage from Barbara Tuchman’s THE PROUD TOWER, which I excerpted back in 2009. Here it is again.


A number of the liberal-leaning blogs I read have been arguing of late that the filibuster in the US Senate needs to be done away with, as it is a fundamentally undemocratic thing whose use has become so frequent and entrenched over the last few years as to render the Senate into a body which de facto requires a supermajority in order to pass anything. (Example.) I tend to agree with this argument; the filibuster’s main virtue seems to be that it’s been that way forever, and that, in itself, is never much of a reason to keep doing anything.

But I’m reminded of a historical episode I read about in a wonderful book by Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower, in which she describes a similar problem faced once by a Republican Speaker of the House named Thomas B. Reed, at the end of the nineteenth century.

He [Reed] was determined, on taking up the gavel as Speaker, to put into effect a plan on which he had long deliberated, consulting no one, and on which he risked his entire political future. He knew that the fight would focus upon him the nation’s attention and also that if he failed his Congressional career would be over. The stakes were high: he would either break “the tyranny of the minority” by the which the House was paralyzed into a state of “helpless inanity”, or he would resign. 

The system Speaker Reed had decided to challenge was known as the silent – or disappearing – quorum. It was a practice whereby the minority party could prevent any legislation obnoxious to it by refusing a quorum, that is, by demanding a roll call and them remaining silent when their names were called. Since the rules prescribed that a member’s presence was established only by a viva voce reply to the roll, and since it required only a majority of the whole to constituted a quorum, the silent filibuster could effectively stop the House from doing business.

… 

To Reed the issue was survival of representative government. If the Democrats could prevent that legislation which the Republicans by virtue of their electoral victory could rightfully expect to enact, they would in effect be setting aside the verdict of the election. The rights of the minority, he believed, were preserved by freedom to debate and to vote but when the minority was able to frustrate action by the majority, “it becomes a tyranny”. He believed that legislation, not merely deliberation, was the business of Congress. The duty of the Speaker to his party and country was to see that that business was accomplished, not merely to umpire debate.

He reached his decision to attack the silent quorum, and planned his campaign, alone, partly because no one else would have thought there was a chance of success and partly because he was not sure that even his own party would support him. There were indications that they might not. Because of Reed’s known views on the silent filibuster it was clear that quorum-counting would be an issue in the new Congress. REED WILL COUNT THEM, predicted a headline in the Washington Post, and the story beneath it said that even Mr. Cannon, Reed’s closest lieutenant, was, opposed to the attempt. The Democrats were manning their defenses. Ex-Speaker Carlisle let it be known that any legislation enacted by a quorum which had not been established by a “recorded vote” would be taken to court as unconstitutional. 

Reed, however, had satisfied himself that he would be upheld if it came to law, and on the attitude of his own party he was prepared to gamble. He shrewdly judged that the Democrats in their rage would provoke the Republicans to rally to his support. When the first of the contested elections appeared on the schedule for January 29 he was ready. As expected, the Democrats raised a cry of no quorum and demanded a roll call. Reed’s moment had come. Without a flicker of expression on the great white moon face, “the largest human face I ever saw”, as a colleague described it, without any quickening of the drawling voice, he announced, “The Chair directs the Clerk to record the names of the following members present and refusing to vote,” and began reading off the names himself. Instantly, according to a reporter, “pandemonium broke loose. The storm was furious…and it is to doubted if ever there was such wild excitement, burning indignation, scathing denunciation and really dangerous conditions as existed in the House” during the next five days. Republicans were wildly applauding, all the Democrats were “yelling and shrieking and pounding on their desks” while the voice of their future Speaker, Crisp of Georgia, boomed, “I appeal! I appeal from the decision of the Chair!” The explosion was “as violent as any ever witnessed in any parliament,” a member recalled later. “Mr. Blanchard, Mr. Bland, Mr. Blount, Mr. Breckinridge of Arkansas, Mr. Breckinridge of Kentucky…” 

Up jumped the Kentuckian, “famous for his silver hair and silver tongue.” “I deny the power of the Speaker and denounce it as revolutionary!” he called. 

The resonant twang from the Chair continued unregarding, “Mr. Bullock, Mr. Bynum, Mr. Carlisle, Mr. Chipman, Mr. Clement, Mr. Covert, Mr. Crisp, Mr. Cummings” – through hisses and catcalls and cries of “Appeal” irresistably rolling down the alphabet – “Mr. Lawler, Mr. Lee, Mr. McAdoo, Mr. McCreary…” 

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

It’s a fascinating tale. It doesn’t end there with that one act of Reed’s, of course; few things of this nature ever do. The Republicans would later lose Congress so badly that the Democrats were able to raise a quorum by themselves, and they then restored the silent quorum. This backfired after the next election cycle, however; the Democratic majority was greatly reduced such that now-Minority Leader Reed was able to frustrate Democratic legislative aims by using the silent quorum himself, until the Democrats finally relented and allowed the silent quorum to end forever.

(The Proud Tower is one of my favorite history books, by the way. It is a large-scale picture — a historical snapshot, if you will — of the state of the the world as it was moving inexorably toward World War I.)

ADDENDUM FOR 2021: If my views aren’t clear enough, here it is: To hell with the filibuster. It was never a great wonderful thing to begin with, and now it has become something utterly perverse. Democrats should kill it, pass their legislative agenda, and then let Republicans try to run in 2022 not on Democrats’ failure to pass anything, but on promising to repeal what they passed.
Oh, and the prospect of Mitch McConnell being rendered impotent is a truly delicious one.

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1 Response to When the House had a filibuster (a Repost)

  1. MKS says:

    This is great. I had no idea. Now I want to read The Proud Tower, tell everyone about this history, and am more inclined to support abolishing the filibuster before I read it.

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