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. Days of contentious debate ensued, but Reed prevailed. His subsequent overhaul of House procedures, dubbed “Reed’s Rules,” greatly expanded his powers.