Thomas Brackett Reed: The Man Who Remade the House

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I was originally going to write a piece about Herbert Marcuse, but I refuse to write about a Marxist on my birthday, so instead I will cover a successful Republican Speaker of the House who changed how the institution operated. Last year I covered J. Warren Keifer, the one-term Speaker of the House who had a disastrous run, and I stated that his successor in party leadership, Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902), would be for another post. This is it.

Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine was elected to Congress in the most contentious year of 1876, when the partisans clashed over the results, which gave Hayes more electoral votes but gave Tilden the most popular votes. Reed took part in the investigations of the election and managed to uncover information that implicated Tilden’s nephew in corruption. As a new member of Congress he saw a problem with the lower chamber not present in the Maine legislature: it was far too easy for the minority to block legislation. They could merely not acknowledge their presence or refuse to vote to deny a quorum (half of all members plus one required to conduct business), and this struck Reed as ineffective government. However, the time period in which Reed was elected was a time of divided government: while the GOP controlled the Senate most of the time, the same was true with the Democrats and the House. He was a staunch pro-business conservative who supported hard money, the gold standard, tariffs, and internal improvements (hearkening back to the Whig position for furthering commerce). Reed also became known as a public intellectual and for his extraordinary debating skills. Although the GOP had control of the House in the 47th Congress (1881-1883), Speaker Keifer lacked the leadership skills to end the House filibuster.  The House GOP, recognizing Reed’s talent, selected him to lead the House party after their defeat in the 1882 midterm elections. The 1888 elections would provide Reed with his time in the sun: government was unified under the Republican Party, and he was now Speaker.

Congress Under Reed: Rules Reform and Spend the Surplus!

President Grover Cleveland left office with a situation that would be ideal for many politicians today: a budget surplus. The Republicans of that day liked neither high debt nor surplus so under the similarly corpulent Reed (he was 6’3” and weighed around 300 lbs.) they opted to spend the surplus on expanding Union veterans pensions and expanding the navy, which resulted in Democrats criticizing them as the “billion dollar Congress” for what they regarded as wastefully spending the surplus. He also tried to get voting rights protections passed for Southern blacks, but the effort failed in the Senate. Reed’s most significant and lasting achievement as Speaker was the elimination of the disappearing quorum. In the last Congress, there had been an excessive number of votes to establish quorum and he was sick of it. The Republican majority in the 51st Congress was slim and only three Republican absences could happen at a time for business to occur, a task that was becoming impossible to meet. Although Reed had employed the disappearing quorum when he was in the minority, on January 29, 1890, as Speaker he announced in the vote on the Jackson vs. Smith election contest in West Virginia, “The Chair directs the Clerk to record the following names of members present and refusing to vote” (Tuchman). The minority Democrats howled, some hid under their desks to avoid being counted, and Congressman Constantine “Buck” Kilgore of Texas kicked the locked door of the House open to flee. When Kentucky Democrat James McCreary contested the counting of him as present, Speaker Reed retorted, “The Chair is making a statement of the fact that the gentleman from Kentucky is present, does he deny it? (Tuchman)” His act even led one Democrat, William Bynum of Indiana, to denounce “the arbitrary, the outrageous, the damnable rulings of the Chair”, resulting in his censure for unparliamentary language (Tuchman).

Although pandemonium was occurring in the House and Democratic minority members hurled invective at him, Reed managed to contain his anger and calmly make it happen. Reed’s Rules were now established, which eliminated the disappearing quorum and ensured control of the Rules Committee by the majority party. The 51st Congress proved to be the most productive one in many years and Democrats resented this, referring to him as “Czar Reed” for establishing majority rule in the House. When the Democrats won back the House in 1890, they originally scrapped Reed’s rules as they had a great enough majority to ensure a quorum, but he made use of the disappearing quorum on them in the 53rd Congress when their majority was reduced and they quietly reinstated the rules they had objected to so much. He had established the principle of party responsibility when in the majority, and House majorities since then have been held to it.

In 1894, the nation was in a depression and Democrats faced their single worst House midterm ever, losing 116 seats, double what they lost in the Tea Party election of 2010. Reed was back in the Speaker’s chair and triumphant. In 1896, Reed sought the nomination for president, but he suffered no fools and the Republicans wanted someone more agreeable…William McKinley. After the 1896 elections, government was unified under the Republicans again and Reed worked to pass Republican legislative priorities, including the institution of the gold standard and the Dingley Tariff. In 1898, he was eager to avoid war with Spain and worked with the McKinley Administration to prevent it, but when McKinley flipped on the issue, Reed did not and resigned the House in protest to the war and expansionary policy. In his career, he had set the stage for an even more powerful Speaker, his colleague and ally Joe Cannon of Illinois, who, like Reed, was accused of ruling the House as a dictator.

Conclusion

Thomas Brackett Reed was the right man, in the right place, at the right time as Speaker. He was tough and didn’t let immense pressure from the opposition impact his decision-making. Only a man with the iron constitution of Reed could have pulled off his rules reform, a man who was willing to risk all (Reed would have resigned had he failed) for a monumental achievement. Had William McKinley of Ohio prevailed over Reed in the 1888 contest for Speaker, the reform would not have happened in the session as he would have overly fretted about what people thought of him. Thomas Brackett Reed stands as one of the most talented Speakers the country has ever known.

P.S.: The Quotable Speaker Reed

Thomas Brackett Reed was known for his wit and profound observations, all but two are from Quotetab:

“One of the greatest delusions in the world is the hope that the evils in this world are to be cured by legislation.”

“They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.” – On the Democrats.

“They could do worse, and they undoubtedly will” (Conlin, 620). – On whether the Republican Party would nominate him for president in 1896.

“If human progress had been merely a matter of leadership we should be in Utopia today.”

“One, with God, is always a majority, but many a martyr has been burned at the stake while the votes were being counted.”

“It is a very lonely life that a man leads, who becomes aware of truths before their times.”

“All the wisdom of the world consists of shouting with the majority.”

“A statesman is a successful politician who is dead.”

“The best system is to have one party govern and the other party watch.”

“The only justification for rebellion is success.”

“The reason why the race of man moves slowly is because it must move all together.”

“Politics is mostly pill-taking.”

“The gentleman need not be disturbed – he will never be either.” – In response to Democratic colleague William Springer of Illinois, who quoted Henry Clay in that he would rather be right than be president.

“No, but I approve of it” (Conlin, 620). – When asked by reporters if he would attend the funeral of one of his critics.

References

Conlin, J.R. (2012). The American past: A survey of American history. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Thomas Reed Quotations. Quotetab.

Retrieved from

https://www.quotetab.com/quotes/by-thomas-reed

Tuchman, B.W. (December 1962). Czar Of The House. American Heritage, 14(1).

Retrieved from

https://www.americanheritage.com/czar-house#1

 

 

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