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The House's filibuster

brownstein_book.jpgEarly on in American history, it was actually the House of Representatives that was bedeviled by a parliamentary maneuver that killed legislation by denying it a majority vote. Ron Brownstein's “The Second Civil War” (which is selling for a great price on Amazon) has a particularly clear explanation of the practice and its abolition:

In 1890 ... the corpulent, cold-eyed Republican speaker Thomas B. Reed of Maine rewrote House rules to eliminate the minority's ability to block bills. The minority's most powerful weapon in the nineteenth-century House has been its ability to prevent action by refusing to answer present during roll calls; that denied the majority the quorum required for action. On Wednesday, January 29, 1890, without warning even his allies, Reed instructed the clerk to record as present and not voting all the Democrats who refused to answer when the speaker sought to bring up a contested election from West Virginia. Democrats erupted in outrage, but Reed made the change stick: No longer could the minority stalemate the majority through the House equivalent of a Senate filibuster.

The Democrats might have complained when Reed changed the rules, but they kept them in place once they took over the House. And there's never been a major effort to restore the quorum trick. Nor has there been a successful, or even popular, campaign to adopt the Senate filibuster in the House. Instead, the House now functions through majority rule. Even more impressive, its votes are considered legitimate, and the Senate and the president routinely support House legislation and treat the branch as a co-equal member of government rather than a rogue bastion of majority rule.

Oh, and I'll just point out that it was a Republican speaker who ended the House's filibuster. Majority rule is, in principle, bipartisan. It's just not supported by both parties at the same time.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 8, 2010; 3:40 PM ET
Categories:  Congress , History  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Lessons from the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit vote
Next: How the filibuster was invented


That's some story, I can't recall ever hearing of it.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | March 8, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Since the House Dems have felt so bitter in having to defer to the Senate Dems, they should consider instituting their own filibuster, say at 70%, to up the ante and take control back. Filibusters for everyone!

Posted by: etdean1 | March 8, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

The rules of Republican History:
Facts aren't the point.
History started yesterday when useful.
A mythologized Reagan was the only real Republican Prez; others can be ignored, inc. the actual Reagan.

Posted by: WarrenTerra | March 8, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Wow, Ezra, that sounds so,

Posted by: granitestate1 | March 8, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

"Instead, the House now functions through majority rule" except for the scheduling of votes. That is, unlike the Senate, the House bills need not be considered in order received, allowing a bill (such as the current health care reform bill) to be held until such time as a "majority" can be built through bribes, kickbacks, expulsions, and other techniques. Again, as an example, Speaker Pelosi has held the health care reform bill for twice as long as did the Senate... if a truly representative majority exists, why would such a hold be necessary (or prudent)??

To say that House "votes are considered legitimate" is quite an assertion.

Posted by: rmgregory | March 8, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

rmgregory, are House votes not considered legit by people that I don't know about? Do people regularly criticize bills passed in the House for not having the imprimatur of having almost, but not quite, 2/3 support? The House votes, a bill passes, it goes to the Senate or the President. Nobody that I've heard questions the legitimacy of the number of "yea" votes.

Posted by: MosBen | March 8, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

It's a great story, but you left out the best bit:

As he called the names of Democrats present in the Chamber, the Democrats screamed and yelled, to no avail. As Speaker Reed called out the name of Congressman McCreary, the congressman yelled, "I deny your right, Mr. Speaker, to count me present!" Reed replied, "The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman is present, does he deny it?"

(from a post at the GOS,

Posted by: johnshaft | March 8, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

"Oh, and I'll just point out that it was a Republican speaker who ended the House's filibuster."

You should also point out that Reed ended the Democrats were attempting to block the inclusion of four new elected Republicans from the South, two of whom were black, according to wiki.

The Reed story puts me in mind of the 12 Democratic members of the 31 person Texas Senate who went into hiding in 1980 in order to prevent a quorum and obstruct Senate action. Then Governor Bill Hobby sent the Texas Rangers out to arrest the 12 Killer Bees, as they were known, and bring them back to Austin and force them to appear. The story is here:,9171,946253,00.html

Ah, me. Politics just aren't as much fun as they used to be.

Posted by: bgmma50 | March 8, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

on the other side, what's the story behind the senate filibuster's creation? (i'm sure you've discussed it here before)

Posted by: rt72 | March 8, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

bgmma50, you have a short memory, or you're counting less than seven years ago as "used to be". A similar thing happened in 2003 with the Texas Legislature; quoting from Wikipedia:

""During the 2003 legislative session, under the encouragement of Tom DeLay and Governor Rick Perry, the Republican majority introduced legislation to redraw the districts from 2001. This legislation was brought to the district court in Austin, where a three judge panel declared that it violated neither the Texas Constitution nor the Voting Rights Act.[5] Because the Democrats did not have enough votes to stop the legislature, 52 Democrats from the House of Representative left for Oklahoma in order to prevent the quorum. These 52 Democrats were known as the "Killer D's". The "Killer D's" returned to the state on the promise that redistricting will not be brought up in the regular session.""

In a nice touch, Tom DeLay got the newly-created Department Of Homeland Security to (illegally) track down the private plane of one of the Democratic legislators who'd fled Austin.

(Wikipedia article - the current version cites one article about the DHS involvement, but I didn't see a mention in the text of the article.

Posted by: WarrenTerra | March 8, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Per Wikipedia, that wasn't the House's filibuster: "In the House of Representatives, the filibuster (the right to unlimited debate) was used until 1842, when a permanent rule limited the duration of debate. The disappearing quorum was a tactic used by the minority until an 1890 rule eliminated it."

When I read that, I had thought from the times that the Democrats were in power when the rules were changes in both cases - the Democrats won a two-thirds majority in the 1842 elections and a three-quarters majority in the 1890 elections. But now that I read that the 1890 change was actually undertaken by the Congress elected in 1888, I wonder if it wasn't the same for the first change, too: that the Whig majority elected in 1840 changed the rules in 1842, shortly before the Democratic victory.

In any case, maybe it's a coincidence, but a change in the rules seems to precede a big change in the composition of Congress.

Posted by: dcamsam | March 8, 2010 7:10 PM | Report abuse

Ezra describes the "disappearing quorum" tactic:

"The minority's most powerful weapon in the nineteenth-century House has been its ability to prevent action by refusing to answer present during roll calls; that denied the majority the quorum required for action."

The quorum in the House is a simple majority of all members. So this tactic wouldn't create a supermajority requirement. It was just a way of the minority blocking action when some members of the majority hadn't bothered to show up. That doesn't seem all that undemocratic or counter-majoritarian to me.

The situation in Texas in 2003 was different. As I understand it, the quorum in the Texas House is 2/3s of members. So the same tactic used in Texas did create a supermajority requirement.

Posted by: Modicum | March 8, 2010 9:14 PM | Report abuse

I really had forgotte about that one, WarrenTerra. Probably because Rick Perry didn't send out the Texas Rangers to arrest the escapees.

Posted by: bgmma50 | March 8, 2010 10:19 PM | Report abuse

PASS the HealthCare Bill.

As early as the 1960's Gerard Piel (now deceased founder of Scientific American magazine) was writing about technological unemployment/ the technology/abundance catch-22: technology creates abundance but our MONEY system only works when there is scarcity.

(1st round in that battle was overproduction in agriculture - with the solution being paying farmers not to grow food/work less. (improved by JFK's invention of Food Stamps, resulting in LESS money paid to farmers not to grow food, more food grown, tractors sold, food factory workers employed, more trucks trucking, spreading waves of economic activity generated, more sofas sold, etc.

NEXT ROUND: What happens WHEN we become capable of making an overabundance of MANUFACTURED GOODS? How about what's happening NOW?

What to do: Relax, Work With the Government, they are aware of the Technology/Abundance Catch-22. STOP worrying about, resenting, hating people, orgs, countries getting something for FREE. THAT is part of working thru to a NEW ECONOMICS.

Mental Picutre: Inventor ancestors dreamed of the day when their children's children's children would be freed from WANT - supplied abundantly with the necessities of life, food, shelter, education, medical care .... but wait ..... YOU are theose children. All you have to do is ACCEPT your Inheritance.

picture 20___ whatever ... robots inside the factories producing all manner of goods people want (especially Wii's) but, look at all those humans standing outside the factory fence --- unemployed --- with no money to buy what the robots are making --- no money to live indoors & eat food.

Gerard Piel: "Distribution, as everyone knows, is the last frontier of economics"

WE have arrived at that Frontier, we are in perilous times, but hang loose & try to help the change along - the only alternative is to make ourselves artificially poorer.

JFK's Inaugural Address: "Unsolved problems of Poverty and OVERPRODUCTION." NOW, we have to solve that problem. Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.

Posted by: elme13 | March 9, 2010 3:04 AM | Report abuse

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