Before Nancy Pelosi There Was Thomas B. Reed

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

The current occupant of the White House, the greatest negotiator ever, the purported author of “The Art of the Deal,” met his match with Nancy Pelosi. Speaker of the House Pelosi learned her deal making from her father, a mayor of Baltimore, and later in the bruising political environment that is San Francisco. She has the current President so flustered that the best he can come up with for a denigrating nickname is an ineffectual “Nancy.” Pelosi, in turn, said that the border wall, “is like a manhood thing for him — as if manhood would ever be associated with him.”

The Speaker’s power that Nancy Pelosi is exploiting goes back more than a century when another powerful politician wielded the gavel. Thomas B. Reed was Speaker of the House from 1889-1891 and again from 1895-1899.

Back when Democrats were the party espousing limited government and Republicans were more like modern-day Democrats, Republican Thomas Reed put forward his belief that, “The best system is to have one party govern and the other party watch.” Reed’s first major victory in expanding the Speaker’s authority was his attack on what was known as the “Disappearing Quorum.”

The “Battle of the Reed Rules” took place in January 1890 when House Democrats attempted to block seating of four newly-elected Republicans, two of them African-American, from Southern districts. The first vote was 162-1 in favor to seat. Democrats claimed the vote failed because votes did not meet the necessary 165-member quorum. House procedures did not count a member as present even if in the chamber, but did not vote. Thomas Reed, also Chairman of the House Rules Committee, ordered the doors locked and directed the Clerk to count as present members who were in the room but had not voted. Yelling and pandemonium ensued and Reed, an imposing figure at over six-feet tall and more than three hundred pounds, looked to be in danger of physical assault. One Democrat shouted that the Speaker had no right to count him as present. Reed calmly responded, “The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman is present. Does he deny it?”

Three days later, the House voted to seat its new Representatives. Three days after that, they voted in the Reed Rules. Democrats took control of the House the next year and reinstated the disappearing quorum. As Minority Leader, Reed was so adroit at using the tactic against Democrats that they reinstated the Reed Rules in 1894.

Reed sought the GOP nomination for president in 1896. “They can do worse,” he said of the Republicans, “And they probably will.” William McKinley won the party’s nomination and subsequently was elected President.

Other pithy quotes from Thomas B. Reed:

  • One, with God, is always a majority, but many a martyr has been burned at the stake while the votes were being counted.
  • To a Representative who was quoting Henry Clay: “As for me, I would rather be right than be President.”  Reed’s response: “The gentleman need not be disturbed; he will never be either.”
  • Speaking of some political opponents: “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.”

Thomas Reed’s vehement opposition to the U.S. entering in to war against Spain in the Philippines and Cuba caused him to resign as Speaker and Representative in 1899.

One thought on “Before Nancy Pelosi There Was Thomas B. Reed”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.