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Op-ed | Reflecting on gridlock

Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 08:01

Last summer’s extended stymied action in the United States House of Representatives (113th Congress) was ludicrous as an example of representative democracy, and embarrassing to America’s worldwide reputation; but it wasn’t a unique instance in America’s 226-year history. For a historical parallel, we need only refer to the 51st Congress of January 1890, when the newly elected Speaker of the House was Thomas Brackett Reed, Republican from the first district of Maine. Back then, the obstructing faction was the Democrats, mostly from the South, who opposed federal legislation designed to safeguard the right of Negroes to vote. The Republicans commanded a bare majority of 168 to 160, and the quorum — the number required to be present to do business under the rules of the House — was agreed to be 165.During a vote on a controversial measure, every Democrat without exception refused to answer the roll call, and thereby claimed the lack of a quorum. Speaker Reed ruled that a quorum was present, notwithstanding the Democrats’ refusal to reply when their names were called. The parliamentary battle that followed was of the utmost stridency and lasted three days, until all absent Republicans could be summoned back to the House for the deciding vote, which came in at 166-0.

In the days that followed, Speaker Reed, ex officio chairman of the Committee on Rules, made sure that the parliamentary rules of the House were amended, specifying that all members were required to vote, that all who were physically present should be counted as present and that, “no dilatory motion shall be entertained, and the definition of what is dilatory to be left to the judgment of the Speaker.” As Reed and many others (including Colonel Robert of Robert’s Rules of Order) later asserted, the object of parliamentary procedure is action, not stoppage of action, and that all legislators equally, the minority no less than the majority, possess the right to debate and to vote; but the majority must rule. The House of Representatives has followed this principle ever since.

Today, the party shoe is on the other foot. Speaker Reed would be mortified to see what happened to the House of Representatives that he served so loyally and so effectively. Unable to agree on a continuing resolution on the federal budget, the Republican majority preferred to precipitate a government shutdown. When the shutdown finally ended, Speaker Boehner admitted that he had lost that particular congressional battle without ever recognizing that that battle was morally not his to fight. In using his position to prevent action on the pending budget, Speaker Boehner abdicated his responsibility to lead the entire House impartially as his oath of office required. He was driven to this by some thirty hardline Tea Party congressmen who he feared might try to depose him as Speaker should he yield on the budget issue. He was thus revealed as one of the weakest congressmen ever to hold his leadership position. Those who believe — Republicans as well as Democrats — that Congress has a duty to serve the interests of the nation, and not those of a faction of a political party, might well claim that Congressman Boehner, having failed in his sworn obligation as Speaker, ought to resign his position.

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