The demise of the House filibuster ought to be better remembered, and not just because it’s one of the most dramatic episodes in American political history. The procedural battle that took place more than a century ago holds an important lesson for lawmakers of both parties today: Ending the filibuster may be messy, but it won’t destroy a legislative body. In fact, in a polarized age, the only guaranteed cure for political dysfunction is majority rule.
Like the Senate filibuster, which was created when then–Vice President Aaron Burr accidentally removed a rule permitting a majority of the chamber to force a vote on a bill, the House filibuster was at heart a procedural loophole. In this case, the trick involved the way that lawmakers took attendance. According to the lower chamber’s original rules, lawmakers who voted “yes” or “no” on a piece of legislation were marked present, but those who did not vote at all were marked absent, even if they were standing on the House floor.
This mattered because, like most lawmaking bodies, the House requires a quorum; without a majority of lawmakers present, the chamber grinds to a halt. If the majority party was able to summon a sufficient number of its own members to Washington, it could pass bills as it pleased. But in a pre-aviation age, when lawmakers were frequently days’ or even weeks’ travel from the Capitol, gathering a quorum was extremely difficult. In many cases, members of the minority party could decline to vote and be marked absent, denying the majority a quorum despite being in the chamber. Just as in the Senate presently, a minority of the House could kill a popular bill by denying it an up-or-down vote.
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Political scientists today call this procedural trick “the disappearing quorum.” But in the early 1800s, Americans referred to it with a word derived from the flibustier and filibusteros who pirated the seas on behalf of France and Spain. They called the delaying tactic, or hijacking of the legislature, “the filibuster.”
The House filibuster, which began when the House itself did, lasted roughly a century. Then, in the 1888 elections, Republicans won control of the White House, the Senate, and the House for the first time in nearly two decades. In theory, the GOP could finally pass its ambitious agenda. But because its majority in the lower chamber was extremely small—just three votes—Democrats could deny a quorum nearly any time they chose. At the turn of the 20th century, partisan polarization was almost as bad as it is today, which meant that the assumption back then was the same as it is now: The minority party would use the filibuster to completely derail the majority’s legislative agenda.
What no one anticipated, however, was a legislator as devoted to getting rid of the filibuster as Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed. A 6-foot-3, 300-pound Civil War veteran who favored walrus mustaches and all-black attire, Reed first made his name in Congress as a spouter of witty one-liners during debates. But his real genius lay in understanding the House’s rules. Although Reed cherished the lower chamber as an institution, he became convinced that if a minority of lawmakers could kill a bill without allowing a vote on it, the House would become, in his words, “a tyranny.” He grew confident that, because the House rewrites its rules from scratch for every new legislative session, he could eliminate the filibuster with a single, bold stroke. Perhaps most important, he decided that ending the filibuster was worth risking his career over.