Quorum - Disappearing Quorum

The similar tactic of disappearing quorum (refusing to vote although physically present on the floor) was used by the minority to block votes in the United States House of Representatives until 1890.

The practice was shattered on January 29, 1890, when a resolution was brought to the House floor that concerned who should be seated from West Virginia's 4th congressional district: James M. Jackson, the Democrat, or Charles Brooks Smith, the Republican.

The Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed put this question to the Members: "Will the House consider the resolution?" The yeas and nays were demanded with a result of 162 yeas, three nays, and 163 not voting. Democrats, led by Charles Crisp (who succeeded Reed as Speaker in the next two Congresses), then declared that the absence of a quorum (179 Representatives) prevented the House from making decisions. As dictated by House rules for the suggestion of the absence of a quorum, Speaker Reed began an attendance roll call - but directed the Clerk of the House to record as present any Member who was then in the chamber, whether they answered the roll call or not.

Immediately, Reed's action produced an uproar in the House. Democrats shouted "Czar! Czar!", a title that stuck to Reed for the rest of his life. "Tyranny," "scandal," and "revolution" were some of the words used to describe Reed's action. Democrats "foamed with rage," wrote historian Barbara Tuchman.

A hundred of them were on their feet howling for recognition. 'Fighting Joe' Wheeler, the diminutive former Confederate cavalry general, unable to reach the front because of the crowded aisles, came down from the rear leaping from desk to desk as an ibex leaps from crag to crag. As the excitement grew wilder, the only Democrat not on his feet was a huge representative from Texas who sat in his seat significantly whetting a bowie knife on his boot.

Speaker Reed remained firm in the face of this parliamentary tumult and angry debate. He continued to count nonvoting legislators for quorum purposes, challenging protesters to deny their presence in the chamber. Reed even ordered the doors of the chamber locked when Democrats tried to exit; instead, Democrats began hiding under their desks, which left Reed undeterred in counting them. Finally, after five days of stridency, the contested election case was taken up and Republican Smith emerged the victor by a vote of 166 yeas, 0 nays, and 162 not voting. Then, on February 6, 1890, the Reed-led Rules Committee reported a new set of House rules. One of the new rules—Rule 15—established a new procedure for determining quorums (counting lawmakers in the chamber who had voted as well as those who did not vote).

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