Historical Highlights

Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine Proceeded Against the “Disappearing Quorum”

January 29, 1890
Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine Proceeded Against the “Disappearing Quorum” Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
On this date, Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine proceeded against the “disappearing quorum” during a roll-call vote by ruling as present those Members gathered on the floor but not voting. This seemingly innocuous act represented the beginning of a revolution in House rules and the Speakership. At the time, a quorum (i.e., the minimum number of Members required to conduct House business—half plus one) was established only by counting the number of Members who cast votes. Minority party Members could block legislation they opposed by refusing to vote or to respond to quorum calls. This practice stymied closely divided Congresses in the late 19th century. As a Member of the minority party Reed had defended the tactic as an “extraordinary mode” of protecting against the tyranny of the majority. Yet, when Republicans gained the majority and made Reed Speaker, he abruptly instructed the Clerk to count present all Members on the floor. Democrats vigorously protested, with James McCreary of Kentucky questioning the Speaker’s right to count him as present. “The Chair is making a statement of the fact that the gentleman from Kentucky is present,” Reed shot back, “Does he deny it?” His subsequent overhaul of House procedures, dubbed “Reed’s Rules,” greatly expanded his powers.

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