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Every serious student of Congress is familiar with Thomas B. Reed, a dominant speaker of the House near the end of the 19th century who was known as a ”czar” for his use of the House rules to achieve the goals of his Republican majority. He was the precursor of the much more authoritarian ”Uncle Joe” Cannon, whose ham-handed exercise of power led to the storied 1910 revolt that created the seniority system in Congress. It was Reed who transformed the speakership for the 20th century, but to most Americans, he is at best a dim figure from history, perhaps a candidate for a particularly tough question on ”Jeopardy!”
In some ways, Reed’s relative anonymity is curious. He might have become president, or at least have won his party’s nomination, if he had actively pursued it. Erudite and intellectual, possessed of a wicked wit, he kept Republicans together by the force of his personality and the power of his arguments, and defended his tough and controversial command of the House in a way that generated widespread respect among his colleagues from both parties.
“I suspect Grant was drawn to Reed in part because his era was rife with pitched battles over monetary policy.” – Norman Ornstein
Cannon, on the other hand, was rough-hewn and imperious, and lost his power because a large number of his own resentful Republicans joined with Democrats to overturn his hegemony. Still, it is Cannon who has one of the three main House office buildings named after him, alongside Sam Rayburn and Nicholas Longworth.
James Grant would not immediately leap out as the logical choice to write a biography of Tom Reed. He is best known as a financial analyst, the editor of the respected Grant’s Interest Rate Observer. But he is also an accomplished biographer, having previously taken on Bernard Baruch and John Adams. I suspect Grant was drawn to Reed in part because his era was rife with pitched battles over monetary policy. The question of whether gold, silver, both metals or none would back up Civil War greenbacks dominated much of the political debate, especially during presidential campaigns. And Grant writes about these issues at great length.
Whatever his reasons, in ”Mr. Speaker!” Grant admirably succeeds in interweaving three components of the Reed story: his life and persona; the internal dynamics and operation of the House of Representatives; and the era in which Reed lived. The last is a story that will have meaning for anyone caught up with the politics of our own time.
Born in Portland, Me., in 1839, Reed practiced law before moving into politics in the State Legislature and as state attorney general. At the age of 37 he was elected to Congress, where he served 12 terms, including two tours as speaker of the House, from 1889 to 1891 and from 1895 to 1899. He resigned from Congress in large part over his disagreement with the American decision to go to war with Spain and build an empire by annexing Hawaii and the Philippines. This caused immense strain in his close relationship with Theodore Roosevelt, who had been an early and ardent supporter. He died at age 63 in 1902.
Congress in Reed’s day had many powerful and talented figures, but he rose to the top as a tough partisan who made himself a master of the rules and ways of the House. His reputation was enhanced early on when, as a freshman, he conducted a devastatingly effective cross-examination of Samuel Tilden, the Democratic presidential nominee, during the dispute over the 1876 election. Reed made the point that there had been corruption and questionable behavior on both sides, which took much of the sting out of the charge that Rutherford B. Hayes and the Republicans had stolen the election. Soon he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee. In 1889, despite formidable opposition (including from William McKinley, who later had to settle for the presidency), he ascended to the speakership, and with it the chairmanship of the powerful Rules Committee.
Reed immediately set out to deal with the problem that had plagued the House for decades — its inability to overcome the incessant filibusters permitted through a device known as the disappearing quorum. The Constitution sets a majority of each house as the quorum required to do any official business. For decades, members of the House, even if physically in the chamber, were not counted for purposes of a quorum if they did not respond when their names were called. Given the frequent absences and illnesses in Congress in those days, the minority could easily paralyze procedures. Arguing against his Democratic colleagues’ emotional defense that their practice was part of their constitutional duty, Reed replied, ”There is no such thing as suicide in any provision of the Constitution.” It was one of several aphorisms Reed coined that are still in circulation today.
As Grant notes, obstructionism was a feature of many democratic institutions. It had plagued the British Parliament and even the Illinois Legislature, where in 1840, Abraham Lincoln jumped out a window in the state capitol to deny the Democratic majority the quorum it needed to adjourn. (Grant offers no comparisons with the modern United States Senate — an unfortunate omission, especially since so many think the Senate filibuster came from the framers.) I know as well as anybody how difficult it is to write intelligibly, much less entertainingly, about Congressional procedures, and Grant explains complicated processes in lively and lucid terms.
The same is true of his treatment of Reed’s life and times. This is actually a perfect moment for a full biography of Reed. His era spanned the Gilded Age (he was a friend of Mark Twain). It included tumultuous politics and even more tumultuous economics. Reed’s role in the Tilden-Hayes election controversy brings to mind the Bush-Gore dispute of 2000 (though the earlier episode was even smellier and contained more threats of violence). It was a time of extremely close partisan divisions, swings in presidential elections and several changes in party control in Congress, just like ours. It featured tons of political scandals, involving money, patronage, huge interests lobbying to get their way — just like our new Gilded Age. There were periods of boom and bust, an enormous real estate bubble that burst and the severe depression of 1893. There were also sharp controversies over the size and scope of government, and over whether the United States should go to war in distant places.
But the parallels seem to be part of what might be called a parallel universe. In Reed’s time, the defender of expansive, activist government and of staunch protectionism was the Republican Party; the Democrats were the upholders of limited government and the champions of free trade. The huge fiscal problems of that day centered not on federal deficits but on federal surpluses, and what to do about them. For Republicans like Reed, high tariffs existed not just to protect industries, but to protect workers in America, enabling them to get better wages. Reed was also an outspoken proponent of woman suffrage (of which his wife disapproved). Congressional gridlock involving the use and misuse of the filibuster to thwart the majority’s will was a problem in the House; back then, it wasn’t a problem for the Senate.
It is good to have this excellent biography of Thomas Reed, a vastly underappreciated major figure in American political history. But it is especially worthwhile reading about him right now, because his era has so many similarities — maybe too many — with our own tumultuous and dysfunctional times.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.
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