This is the second part of a story that started in February.
On March 15, 1910, House Speaker Joe Cannon of Illinois suffered a rare legislative setback when 14 of his fellow Republicans joined Democrats to cut funding for the routine maintenance of his official government automobile. By all appearances, it seemed like a minor, personal rebuke. But in this case, it foreshadowed a much larger problem for one of the most powerful Speakers in American history.
The issue of Cannon’s car had carried over from the previous summer when, in August 1909, the House approved a $6,000 appropriation to buy the Speaker an automobile. Debate over the funding had been both rancorous and jovial, but Cannon’s opponents—including more than two dozen from his own party—had ultimately failed to remove the spending clause from the final bill.
For many Members, Cannon’s official government vehicle was more than just a car. It was a symbol of his already immense power. The months-long debate about Cannon’s automobile came as a coalition of Democrats and Republicans sought to break Cannon’s control over the House. At the time, the Speaker dictated the entirety of the legislative process and served simultaneously as chairman of the Rules Committee. He alone determined who served on what committee and which bills made it to the floor. For many, Cannon was a tyrant who had unilateral and arbitrary sway over the country’s legislative agenda.
A day and a half after the vote to defund Cannon’s car in March 1910, the Speaker’s adversaries saw an opportunity to challenge him again. This time the stakes were higher. Early in the afternoon on March 17, 1910, progressive Nebraska Republican George Norris, who had long opposed Cannon’s reign and had earlier led the opposition to Cannon’s car, filed a motion to remove Cannon from the Rules Committee. The fate of Norris’s bill would determine the future of the Speakership.
Of all the powers that Cannon had as Speaker—the power to make committee assignments, to dispense speaking privileges on the House Floor, to green-light legislation for debate as chairman of the Rules Committee—he used the chairmanship to perhaps the greatest effect.
One of the oldest committees in the House, Rules existed for years as a select committee of minor importance tasked with reviewing and establishing House protocols at the beginning of each Congress. In 1858 the House voted to place the Speaker on the Rules Committee and gave him the power to appoint the panel’s other four members. In 1880 it became a standing committee.
By the final decade of the nineteenth century, the Rules Committee had evolved into a nimble and, if need be, merciless legislative mechanism for House leaders. In 1890 Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine struck down dilatory practices that had long obstructed the legislative process, empowering the majority party to work its will. Reed then used his Rules Committee gavel to hammer his precedents into the rulebook. “Reed’s Rules” were so potent that Democrats were all but forced to keep his changes when they reclaimed the majority.
As the final stop before a bill reached the floor, the Rules Committee set the terms by which major legislation was considered, including the length of debate and whether or how many amendments would be allowed. Its reports took priority over all other business, meaning the Rules Committee could send bills to the floor whenever it wanted and the House would be required to set aside everything else and take them up.
Cannon was 67 years old in 1903 when he finally became Speaker—and thus chairman of the Rules Committee. At the time, he was older and had served longer than any other Speaker in House history. After nearly 30 years in Congress, his Lincolnesque facial hair—full beard, no mustache—had turned a statesmanlike gray. Cannon had inherited an office more influential than at any time in American history. But he didn’t so much invent new powers as exploit existing ones that his predecessors, such as Reed, had accrued.
Of the five total members on the Rules Committee, the three from the majority party—the Speaker, plus his two loyal appointees—became, in the words of political scientists writing in 1911, “the most powerful triumvirate known to parliamentary history.” Only bills they approved had a chance of becoming law.
The problem with this arrangement was obvious to anyone who had ever tried to pass legislation that the Speaker opposed. “It is enough to clothe the Speaker with the power of recognition and to supplement that by adding the power to appoint committees of the House; but to add to those powers, great almost to the point of being dangerous, the absolute control of the House through its Committee on Rules is giving greater power to the Speaker of the House than any one man in this free Republic ought to possess,” Representative Joseph W. Bailey of Texas argued in 1899. “To say that the power still remains with the House is a subterfuge, because the House can never pass upon a question until the Committee on Rules see [sic] fit to report. To say that the committee can be controlled by the majority is not candid, because the committee is considered the Speaker’s official family and no gentleman of the Speaker’s party would serve upon it unless he could support the Speaker’s policy.” The House maintained this system for almost three decades.
Cannon’s aversion to the emerging progressive movement within the Republican Party came to define his Speakership. Major reform bills did become law during his tenure—including progressive measures like the Pure Food and Drug Act. But Cannon, who had grown personally wealthy in the decades after the Civil War, was often accused of putting the interests of businesses over people. A growing number of other Republicans had also become frustrated with Cannon’s heavy-handedness and found common cause with progressives. Together they became known as the “insurgents.” “I know it to be a fact that the single objective which brought these men together was the taking from the Speaker of the vast, brutal power which the rules of the House gave him,” George Norris, the progressive Nebraska Republican, would later write of the partnership.
The Speaker’s opponents had tried and failed to limit his powers for quite some time. In addition to the seemingly minor votes against Cannon’s automobile, there had been plenty of signs that the Speaker was in trouble. In the winter of 1908 and 1909, insurgent Republicans began strategizing on how to empower the rank and file and strip Cannon of his power. A dozen Republicans voted against Cannon for Speaker at the start of the 61st Congress (1909–1911), and they and others allied with Democrats to stall the adoption of the rules package.
When Cannon forced certain changes to a major tariff overhaul in 1909—and then, as he had often done in the past, stripped Members who voted against him of their committee assignments while promoting his allies—his opponents decided enough was enough. By then it had become clear that if enough insurgents joined with Democrats, the coalition would, in effect, become the House majority.
When the House was in session, Cannon and a small group of party lieutenants often commuted home from the Capitol in the same car. “It has long been the general belief,” wrote a journalist for the Louisville Courier-Journal in February 1910, “that under the roof of this automobile a few minutes each day, these few men have hatched more of the destiny of the House of Representatives since Mr. Cannon has been Speaker than all the rest of the House put together.” Among this insular group, however, none seemed to sense the tide shifting against them. Cannon may have been personally popular among many in his caucus, but “Cannonism”—the name given to his brand of politics—was reviled across the country.
Democratic obstinance was expected. But to Cannon, his Republican opponents were “traitors” and unserious lawmakers, a “little band of zealots.” “Many of the Insurgents were honest and really believed they were the victims of the Speaker and a self-appointed cabal,” Cannon observed in a memoir he produced with a longtime aide, “but more were dishonest and disgruntled and loaded their failures on the Speaker. Members who introduced foolish or unconstitutional bills, not with the slightest hope that they would become laws but simply to cater to a demagogic or ignorant element in their districts, were able to tell their constituents the bills would have been passed had it not been for the opposition of the Speaker, thus creating the belief that the Speaker was a ‘Czar’ and controlled by the ‘interests.’”
Norris, the insurgent leader who Cannon once described as “nominally a Republican” and who later served for 30 years in the Senate, insisted he had no personal animosity toward the Speaker. But on March 17, 1910, Norris made his move. The day before, the House had given priority to a bill concerning the upcoming Census because it was a constitutionally mandated function of the federal government (Article 1, Section 2). Using that same reasoning, Norris pointed to Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution—which empowered the House to “determine the Rules of its Proceedings”—and offered what he said was a privileged measure allowing it to bypass Cannon’s committee and jump ahead of existing House business. Norris’s bill was revolutionary: it expelled the Speaker from the Rules Committee and expanded the size of its membership.
As Speaker, it was Cannon’s responsibility to determine whether Norris’s measure could proceed. But because so many Members were away in their districts or attending St. Patrick’s Day events, Cannon’s backers stalled while they plotted their course and waited for supporters to return. When Cannon finally ruled Norris’s measure out of order two days later on March 19, Norris moved for a vote to reverse the Speaker’s decision and won. Cannon had no choice but to put Norris’s bill to expand the Rules Committee before the full House. Forty-three insurgent Republicans joined Democrats to approve Norris’s resolution to remove the Speaker from the Rules Committee. When Cannon then all but dared Democrats and insurgent Republicans to elect a new Speaker, the coalition fell apart and Cannon retained the Speakership.
The vote to maintain Cannon as Speaker lessened the sting of being removed from the Rules Committee, but the insurgents weren’t done with Cannon. Less than a month later, the funding for Cannon’s automobile (as well as the car for the Vice President) became an issue once again. Although the House had stripped the funding from the large annual spending bill back on March 15, the follow-up conference committee had re-inserted the $2,500 appropriation to pay the salary of Cannon’s chauffeur and cover the cost of gas, oil, and maintenance. When that conference report went to a vote on April 11, two dozen Republicans sided with Democrats to strike it down 112 to 132 (14 Members answered present, and 131 did not vote). The House then instructed the conferees to meet with the Senate again.
Ever since the summer of 1909 when the House first debated whether the government should provide automobiles for the Speaker and Vice President, Cannon had said almost nothing about the proposal. But after listening to opponents tie themselves in knots over what amounted to trivial amounts of money, he decided to finally speak out. Cannon stepped down from the rostrum and proceeded to excoriate his opponents on the floor of the House.
Cannon began by reminding the House that “this whole controversy touching an automobile in connection with the office of the Speaker of the House and the office of the Vice-President has not been inspired, from beginning to end, or encouraged or approved of by the present occupant of the Speaker’s chair”—meaning him. Cannon pointed out that the spending provision originally came from the Senate, and that the Speaker and Vice President, as the respective heads of the two houses of Congress, should be treated equally.
Mid-way through his remarks, Cannon directly challenged the insurgents who had antagonized his Speakership but who, a month earlier, ultimately failed to remove him from office. “I am entirely content whatever action the House may take” on the car issue, he said. “But I want to notify you, that unless during this and the next session of Congress . . . Republicans upon this side that do not approve of the personality of their Speaker have the courage to join with a solid minority, I will remain Speaker until the 4th of March next. And while I do not ask and have never asked [for] the appropriation for transportation to the Speaker of the House, if you vote it I will use it just as I use it now. If you see proper not to do it, whether from the standpoint of broad economy or the standpoint of personal dislike to the present occupant of the Speaker’s chair, I care not.” According to the Boston Daily Globe, Cannon smiled a bit as he said the last part.
If Cannon’s speech had been the triumphant climax of months-long debate—of a defiant, battle-tested Speaker damaged but still standing—then what happened next was the anti-climax. As soon as Cannon finished speaking, the House voted to strike the automobile funding and send the bill back to the conference committee.
The automobile spending provision delayed passage of the entire government funding bill. Two months later, on June 10, the House took up another conference report on the spending bill with only the two $2,500 appropriations for the Speaker’s and Vice President’s cars left unresolved. Again, the House voted to strip the funding and send the bill back to the House negotiators to work out a deal with the Senate. This time, however, Cannon didn’t bother to preside over the vote. He named a Speaker pro tempore, left the rostrum, and went into the lobby for a smoke. The next day the Senate gave up its fight and agreed to drop the automobile funding. Cannon could continue to use the car but would have to pay for all its costs himself.
Unfortunately for Cannon, he didn’t have to worry about paying those expenses as Speaker for very long. In the fall elections of 1910, Democrats won back the House majority for the first time since the 53rd Congress (1893–1895), relegating Cannon to the minority. His car played a minor part in the political theater of the campaign. In September, Champ Clark of Missouri, the House Democratic leader, delighted a crowd when he promised that if he was elected Speaker he would “drive a team of Missouri mules down Pennsylvania avenue.”
The end of Cannon’s reign and the reforms to the Rules Committee marked a major turning point in the history of the House of Representatives. But at the time, even the House Parliamentarian, Asher C. Hinds, wondered what effect the committee changes would have on the lawmaking process. “Will ten men without the Speaker be more satisfactory in the long run, than four men with the Speaker?” he asked in McClure’s Magazine in June 1910. No insurgent ended up serving on the expanded Rules Committee and Cannon took some satisfaction after his close confidant, John Dalzell of New York, was named chairman.
Champ Clark never did ride that mule team down Pennsylvania Avenue to be sworn in as Speaker. “I don’t know anything about any mules,” he later said. The Speaker’s car, meanwhile, sat rusting in a garage belonging to the Capitol superintendent. “The car needs a coat of paint badly,” Cannon said in late March 1911, “and since it belonged to the Government I haven’t had it painted.”
Sources: House Journal, 61st Cong., 2nd sess. (11 April 1910): 551; Congressional Record, House, 56th Cong., 1st sess. (4 December 1899): 7; Congressional Record, House, 61st Cong., 2nd sess. (15 March 1910): 3221; Congressional Record, House, 61st Cong., 2nd sess. (11 April 1910): 4524, 4527–4528; Atlanta Constitution, 12 June 1910; Baltimore Sun, 18 March 1910; Boston Daily Globe, 12 April 1910; Chicago Daily Tribune, 12 June 1910; Christian Science Monitor, 10 September 1910; Louisville Courier-Journal, 20 February 1910, 25 March 1911, 3 April 1911; Detroit Free Press, 11 June 1910; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9 September 1910; Asher C. Hinds, “The Speaker and the House,” McClure’s Magazine 35 no. 2 (June 1910): 195–202; C.R. Atkinson and C.A. Beard, “The Syndication of the Speakership,” Political Science Quarterly 26, no. 3 (Sept. 1911): 381–414; John D. Baker, “The Character of the Congressional Revolution of 1910,” Journal of American History 60, no. 3 (Dec. 1973): 679–691; Joe Cannon, Uncle Joe Cannon: The Story of an American Pioneer as told to L. White Busbey (repr. 1970; New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927); Chang-Wei Chiu, The Speaker of the House of Representatives since 1896 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1928); Ronald M. Peters Jr., The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Scott William Rager, “Uncle Joe Cannon: The Brakeman of the House of Representatives, 1903–1911,” in Masters of the House, ed. Roger H. Davidson, Susan Webb Hammond, and Raymond W. Smock (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998): 63–89.Follow @USHouseHistory