The Most Important Politician You've Never Heard Of Thomas Reed was the House speaker more than a hundred years ago. While he's forgotten today, his parliamentary rule changes live on in the immense size and scope of our government.
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The Most Important Politician You've Never Heard Of

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The Most Important Politician You've Never Heard Of

The Most Important Politician You've Never Heard Of

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Today, the speaker of the House is John Boehner, Republican from Ohio, and he's got a big job: corralling the different elements of his own party and at the same time trying to bring both parties together to make laws.

More than a century ago, Thomas Reed was doing the same thing. The Maine Republican became one of the most effective speakers of the House you have probably never heard of.

Author and historian James Grant has written a biography of Thomas Reed, aptly titled "Mr. Speaker!" James Grant joins me now.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. JAMES GRANT (Author, "Mr. Speaker!: The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, the Man Who Broke the Filibuster"): Oh, it is a delight. Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: Of all the people you could have kind of focused on...

Mr. GRANT: I know. I know.

MARTIN: ...and spent a lot of time thinking about, why...

Mr. GRANT: Well, I checked out George Washington, and somebody was on the case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRANT: Reed happens to be a wonderfully congenial fellow. And what I've learned in other experiences in biography is that your invisible friend - that is your subject - must be, if possible, not only interesting and important -and I'll get around to important - but also companionable.

One must have someone who can enjoy a laugh and a beer in the house because this creature never leaves home, is there all the time, moves in.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. GRANT: And Reed satisfied all those criteria. He's a wonderful person to be with, and I'm already missing him.

MARTIN: You also write a lot about Thomas Reed's sense of humor, his wit. What was so unique about that for the time?

Mr. GRANT: Well, I'll tell you the quip that launched me on about five years' worth of lovingly laborious labor.

So Reed was in Paris, and he sent for his portrait with the great portraitist John Singer Sargent. And Reed's personality was larger than life, not so his visage.

His face was unpictorial, Delphic. Sargent didn't get it - couldn't get it. He went through one draft and threw it out, finally produced one. The painting was taken back to Washington. There was an unveiling. It just really didn't work. And as the curtains were drawn, the silence was broken, the embarrassed silence was broken by Reed himself, who said, well, I hope my enemies are satisfied.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Let's just talk about who this man was. Who was Thomas Reed? You describe him as a rock-ribbed Maine Republican at a time when that meant something a little different than it does today.

Mr. GRANT: Well, he was a Republican first and last, but most importantly, he was the fellow who steered the House of Representatives into the modern age and, quite unintentionally, created the techniques by which government could get bigger than all outdoors.

MARTIN: This was a time when Democrats and Republicans aren't exactly - they weren't in line with the kind of issues that we think about them being in line with today, almost opposite roles on some issues, especially the role of government.

Mr. GRANT: Yes. It's as if they switched labels. In Reed's time, the Democrats were the Jeffersonian libertarians, and the Republicans were the proud holders up of a tradition of Alexander Hamilton. They wanted an active, an energetic and enterprising government. The Democrats wanted as little as possible.

MARTIN: I want to get at what it was like to be in the House back then. It was a very kind of contentious environment. Can you describe a day in the House for me back then?

Mr. GRANT: A lot of times, people sat around doing absolutely nothing because a willful minority could simply stop the House cold. The Constitution stipulates that no business can be done in Congress except with a quorum. There must be a minimum number of people on hand to conduct the debate and to vote.

And that seems obvious enough. But what is not so obvious is what is a quorum. Is it the people present in their seats, or is it those who choose to answer during a roll call? For most of Reed's career, it was the latter. If you didn't choose to speak up, you weren't there.

If a majority of the House was sufficiently small, the minority could simply sit mum, and nothing would be done. Reed...

MARTIN: And they did this intentionally.

Mr. GRANT: They did this intentionally.

MARTIN: It wasn't that they had other things to be doing. They sat in the chamber and said, we're not going to participate in this process. Would you...

Mr. GRANT: They sat in the chamber and read newspapers and spat into their spittoons. That's what they did. No more than five to 10 percent of the business before the House was actually transacted. Nothing really got done.

Now this was, for the Democrats, for the Jeffersonian libertarian Democrats of that era, this was all well and good. They wanted inaction. They wanted the government to be as small and as unobtrusive as possible.

Reed wanted something in the nature of action. He was all for progress. He wanted to bring the House into the era of modernity.

MARTIN: And so he changed these rules, this kind of obstructionist behavior, which doesn't really seem to us like a filibuster, but that's essentially what it was back then.

Mr. GRANT: It was, and it was called a disappearing quorum. And Reed changed it with 17 little, undramatic words, quote, "The chair directs the clerk to record the following names of members present and refusing to vote," close quote.

That was it. Those seventeen words were the invitation to perfect pandemonium, because the Democrats saw that if the clerk could count them present when they were present but resisting, then the Republicans could do anything they wanted to. So with those words, two or three days of absolute chaos erupted in the House, until Reed finally exhausted the Democrats and got his way.

And from that day to this, there has been no effective way to make this disappearing quorum trick work in the House. That's what Reed did.

MARTIN: So Reed essentially opened the doors to all this expansion of government. They found that all of a sudden, they could be more effective. They could pass more legislation. So they decided to do that.

Mr. GRANT: And Reed lived to rue, a little bit, what he had wrought. Before very long, there was Republican administration under William McKinley. And William McKinley leads the nation into war with Spain, which is, I guess, a whole new topic.

But what Reed finally wrought was a government that was just as muscular, just as prone to intervention, just as capable of waging a war of choice as the Democrats warned him during this very debate.

MARTIN: And that drove him crazy.

Mr. GRANT: It drove him out of the House. Yeah, it did. It pained him no end. Reed stood for, among other things, principally, I guess, majority rule. He believed that black men, white men and women should vote, and the majority should rule. And here, the majority plainly was for this war of choice. It drove him crazy. It saddened him no end.

The last recorded quip of Thomas B. Reed was when he was - he went down to Washington to hang out with his friends in the House, and he began to talk about some of the interventionist stuff that the Roosevelt administration was doing, including this trust-busting thing. And here's what he - here's how he characterized this inchoate campaign against big business by Teddy Roosevelt, quote, "An indefinable something is to be done in a way nobody knows how at a time nobody knows when that will accomplish nobody knows what."

So that was the rueful last words, last publicly uttered words, of Thomas Reed on the matter of public policy. He was - he regretted a great deal.

MARTIN: James Grant is the author of "Mr. Speaker!" He joined me from our New York bureau.

Thanks for coming in. We appreciate it.

Mr. GRANT: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

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