Harry Reid has nothing on Thomas Reed. Source: Library of Congress
Harry Reid has nothing on Thomas Reed. Source: Library of Congress

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went nuclear yesterday. For decades, it has taken a supermajority of 60 votes for the Senate to invoke “cloture” -- or end debate -- on most matters of importance. In practice, that has meant that the minority party can readily hold up legislation, presidential nominations and other business by threatening to filibuster.

Republicans are outraged, and it’s hard to blame them. The so-called nuclear option triggered yesterday allows presidential nominees -- excluding Supreme Court justices -- to be approved by a simple majority vote. By doing so, Reid has overturned a longstanding legislative practice that has been useful to the Republican Party in recent years. But claims that his action is unprecedented miss the mark. Reid was merely channeling another guy with a very similar name: Thomas Reed of Maine.

In the late 19th century, minority obstructionism was just as big a deal as it is today, with one big difference: The House, not the Senate, was where majority will went to die. In the 1870s and 1880s, the minority party (most often the Democrats) found that it could readily thwart the Republican majority by deploying a tactic known as the “disappearing quorum.”

This bit of obstructionism, which the Washington Post described as a “common form of filibustering,” exploited procedural rules requiring that a quorum -- in other words, a simple majority -- be present when the speaker of the House took a vote. If the Democrats in the minority found legislation distasteful or objectionable, they would pointedly refuse to respond to the roll call, as if they were absent. This effectively denied the Republicans a quorum and torpedoed whatever business or legislation was under consideration. The Democratic minority also brought the House Republicans to heel by endlessly, pointlessly, moving to adjourn.

Enter Thomas Reed, a Republican legislator from Maine who first entered the House in 1877. He distinguished himself early in life with his rhetorical gifts and imposing physical presence: He topped 6’3” and weighed more than 300 pounds. Though often described as having a cherubic countenance, Reed’s artless appearance masked a ruthless, calculating political mind that would soon make short work of his obstructionist opponents.

In late 1889, Reed clawed his way to the top of the House leadership, winning an election to become speaker by a vote of 166 to 154. As it happened, 166 was also the magic number required for quorum. Reed thus had a fragile hold over the House, and he knew that Democrats would use the disappearing quorum to wreak havoc with his leadership. They had plenty of incentive to do so: The House had yet to seat several Republicans who had won contested elections. Indeed, the Democrats planned to use the disappearing quorum to prevent Reed from seating these much-needed allies.

But Reed would have none of this. “The object of a parliamentary body is action, not stoppage of action,” he once observed. He wanted an end to obstruction and gridlock, and when the House met in January 1890 to seat Charles Brooks Smith, a Republican who had won a contested election in West Virginia, the battle was joined.

The vote to seat Smith was lopsided: 162 members voted yes, 3 voted no; 163 refused to vote at all. Reed didn’t have a quorum. This was pretty much as he anticipated, and he promptly went on the offensive. He politely asked the clerk to call roll to confirm the no-shows who sat smirking in their seats. As the clerk called out names and the “missing” Democrats ostentatiously refused to answer, Reed calmly and deliberately instructed the clerk to record each of them as present but “not voting.” This effectively gave Reed the quorum he needed.

As the Democrats realized what was happening, shouts of “Usurper! Tyrant! Hoodlum!” rang through the chamber. When Representative Clifton Breckinridge of Kentucky was called and recorded as present but not voting, he shouted, “I deny the power of the speaker and denounce it as revolutionary!” The New York Times reported that “protest followed protest, and with every new protest the Republicans hooted, laughed, and shouted `Sit down!'” Richard Bland, a Democrat from Missouri, took the greatest umbrage of all, informing Reed: “I denounce you as the meanest usurper who ever sat in that chair, and I denounce you as a tyrant!”

According to eyewitness accounts, Reed maintained an expression of complete serenity with each call of the roll, waiting until the uproar would subside before calling another name. It took him several hours to move through the entire roll. When finished, he proceeded to explain in a calm, patient voice why he had taken this course of action. He cited similar precedents in state legislatures, and he laid out a lengthy argument that legislative bodies’ main function is to legislate, not obstruct.

Reed permitted the Democrats to debate the matter, but he refused to back down, arguing that his definition of the word “quorum” was correct. Shortly thereafter, the House’s Committee on Rules introduced a package of reforms meant to formalize Reed’s declaration, and a formerly fractious Republican majority passed it along party lines. The Supreme Court soon heard a challenge to the proposed rule change, but it backed him up. The disappearing quorum disappeared.

So, too, did a host of other delay tactics, which Reed abolished through additional revisions to the House rules. Under “Reed’s Rules,” any parliamentary maneuver that the speaker deemed dilatory could be summarily shut down. A host of other minor obstacles to the legislative process were also eliminated.

Though the Democrats would abolish these rules a few years later, they were soon reinstated, and have been the basis of House procedure since. In the process, a legislative body infamous for obstruction and gridlock became a place where the majority can railroad the minority with relative ease.

In the 20th century, the Senate started to resemble the House before Reed took charge -- that is, until yesterday. Liberals are flush with victory, but before they get too excited, they should contemplate the enduring legacy of Thomas Reed. Once abolished, the tools and tactics of obstruction and filibustering are probably gone for good. Control of the Senate, by contrast, is far less permanent, and when the Democrats find themselves in the minority again, as they inevitably will, they will likely regret following the lead of Reed and Reid.

(Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)