Introduction

During the first decade of the twentieth century, the Speaker of the House of Representatives possessed enormous power (see “Rules of the House of Representatives”, “Obstructions in the National House” and “A Deliberative Body”, and Constitutional Government in the United States). Speakers were so powerful that they were often referred to as “czars,” a reference to the autocratic rulers of Russia. Among their most significant (and controversial) powers, Speakers were able to exert considerable influence over the House Rules Committee, which is responsible for sending most legislation to the floor for vote.

In 1910, Speaker Joseph Cannon faced a revolt from within the ranks of his own Republican Party. Progressive Republicans, such as George Norris, who would go on to a prominent career, including a lengthy stint in the U.S. Senate, were frustrated that Cannon used his powers to keep Progressive legislation off of the House agenda. On St. Patrick’s Day, while many of Cannon’s supporters in the House were out celebrating, Norris seized his opportunity to combine with Democrats to introduce a resolution reducing the Speaker’s powers. In particular, the Norris resolution sought to end the Speaker’s control over Congress’s legislative agenda by reducing his influence on the Rules Committee, which is responsible for sending most legislation to the floor for a vote.

The debate raged throughout the night, and into the following afternoon, as members argued whether Norris’s resolution was privileged, and therefore at the top of the agenda, or whether the Speaker had to grant permission to even vote on the resolution. Ultimately, Cannon ruled that the resolution was not privileged; Norris appealed to the whole House, which overruled Cannon’s decision, and the resolution was passed, ending the era of “czar” Speakers. But the results of this reform were mixed for Progressives. First, the party caucus (see Your Congress), and then an independent Rules Committee (see Debate on repeal of the “21-day rule” and Debate to Expand the Rules Committee) replaced the Speaker as the gatekeeper for all legislation in the House. Thus, instead of loosening the restrictions on passing legislation, the revolt simply transferred power from the Speaker to other institutions that filtered legislation in the House.


Source: Congressional Record, 61st Congress, 2nd Session, March 17–18, 1910. Vol. 45, pp. 3292–3334, 3389–3417.


Mr. NORRIS.[1] Mr. Speaker, I present a resolution made privileged by the Constitution. . . .

House Resolution 502

Resolved. That the rules of the House be amended as follows:

“The Committee on Rules shall consist of 15 members, 9 of whom shall be members of the majority party and 6 of whom shall be members of the minority party to be selected as follows:

“The states of the Union shall be divided by a committee of three, elected by the House for that purpose, into nine groups, each group containing, as near as may be, an equal number of Members belonging to the majority party. The states of the Union shall likewise be divided into six groups. Each group containing, as near as may be, an equal number of members belonging to the minority party.

“. . . [E]ach of said groups shall meet and select one of its number a member of the Committee on Rules. . . .

“The Committee on Rules shall select its own chairman.

“The Speaker shall not be eligible to membership on said committee.

. . .

Mr. POINDEXTER.[2] . . . Mr. Speaker, the gentleman from New York, who has just taken his seat [Rep. PAYNE],[3] said, I think very properly and correctly, that a permanent system of rules is of greater importance for the minority than it is for the majority. It is evident that the majority can ordinarily take care of itself. But without regular rules for the prosecution of business, which operate in the parliamentary proceedings of a legislative body as the Constitution does in the government of a nation the minority would be absolutely at the mercy of the majority. Now, I make the proposition, that being the case correctly stated by the gentleman from New York, that under the system of procedure of this House, particularly that portion of the system referred to in the resolution of the gentleman from Nebraska, there is no regular permanent system of rules by which the business of this House is transacted. [Applause.]

Upon every occasion when an emergency arises, when an important crisis comes up in the legislation of this House, what is the result so far as the parliamentary procedure is concerned? There is a special order brought in, ordering how this House shall proceed, placing limitation upon the membership of the House, abrogating or setting aside the regular rules, the virtue of which has been extolled by the gentleman from New York. Who brings in these special orders? That is a matter to which I want briefly to refer, the relief of which is intended and will be accomplished by the resolution introduced by the gentleman from Nebraska. Special orders are brought in not by an impartial, disinterested, parliamentary body; they are not evolved from any rule or principle of law or parliamentary usage. They are brought in by a committee of which the Speaker of the House is the controlling factor, that Speaker being at the same time the partisan leader of the majority party in this House. . . .

Mr. TAWNEY.[4] Will the gentleman yield for a question

Mr. POINDEXTER. I will yield to the gentleman.

Mr. TAWNEY. Before any rule or special order from the Committee on Rules can become operative it must be adopted by a majority of the House of Representatives, must it not?

Mr. POINDEXTER. It must be adopted by a majority acting under the whip and spur of the organization of the House, which organization is controlled by the same man, by his power of appointing all committees, who controls the Committee on Rules. [Applause.]

Mr. TAWNEY. What would be the difference in respect to the adoption of a rule reported from a committee composed as that contemplated in the resolution offered by the gentleman from Nebraska which the gentleman is supporting? Would it not be under whip and spur of the 15 men on that committee?

Mr. POINDEXTER. I deny absolutely that there would be any ship whip or spur or any opportunity for it on the part of these men to exercise the power now exercised by the speaker of this House.

. . .

Mr. POINDEXTER . . . I only have a few more words to say, and that is that a great issue has developed in this country during the last few months as to the mode of conducting business in this House.

It in some respects is the most important question which is before the people, and undoubtedly will be an issue in the forthcoming elections, to which the gentleman from New York [Mr. PAYNE] has referred. I have noticed a disposition on the part of some members of this House to be so-called “insurgents” at home and “stalwarts” or “regulars” in this House. [Applause.] Now, I want to say that on this vote upon this question affecting the very vitals of the issue which has been discussed before the country, and which has made this political situation, which is familiar to everybody, the record ought to determine and will determine how a man really stands in regard to that which we have been contending against in the House of Representatives. [Applause.]

. . .

Mr. DALZELL.[5] . . . Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a few observations, having reference more particularly to the criticism made upon the Committee on Rules by the gentleman who has just taken his seat. . . . As has already been stated, the rules of the House are not the creation of any one man or of any set of men. They are not the creation of any one Congress or any number of Congresses. They are an evolution. They are the outgrowth of the parliamentary necessities of one hundred and twenty years of congressional history. There is not a rule in the book of rules that does not have a reason for its being put there. There is not a rule in the book of rules that does not have a reason for being retained there.

Now, the gentleman criticizes the Committee on Rules, not so much the personnel of the committee as the character of the committee. Now, let us see. There have been introduced into this House since this Congress began about 30,000 bills. Those bills cannot all receive consideration. . . . Bills of very great importance, bills of national importance, go upon the calendar oftentimes at such a stage of the session that in the ordinary course they cannot be considered. How shall those bills be dealt with? Only by a process of selection. How shall worthy bills be selected? Only by a committee, and by a committee so constituted that it can give to the selection of those bills deliberation, and, if need be, prompt action.

The Committee of Rules is the committee to which is delegated the selection of the bills that ought to be passed in this House. . . .

The power of the Committee on Rules and the extension of its functions have grown as the size of the House and the size of the country have grown. The Committee on Rules reached its highest power in the Fifty-second and Fifty-third Congresses, Democratic Houses, when Mr. Crisp was Speaker.[6]

Now, let me say in this connection, not only are these rules an evolution, but they are the rules that have been adopted by both parties. The Democratic party, in the Fifty-second and Fifty-third Congresses, adopted the Reed rules, which are substantially the rules to-day.

Mr. POINDEXTER. I would like to ask the gentleman a question. Do you think that that is a strong recommendation of them?

Mr. DALZELL. Why, it simply shows that the Democratic party, notwithstanding its prejudice against the rules, when it came into power found these were the only rules under which they could successfully do business. [Applause on the Republican side.]

Now, the report of the Committee on Rules has no force or effect unless it has behind it a majority of this House. Speaker Crisp held that the Committee on Rules had the right to originate a rule. All other Speakers, Republican Speakers, have held, as the present Speaker has, that the Committee on Rules can only act upon a matter submitted to it. When the Committee on Rules passes on a resolution introduced by a Member of the House, it makes its report to the House; but that report has no force or effect unless it has behind it the majority of the House. But, ah, the gentleman from Washington says, when the Committee on Rules reports, the majority, acting under the whip and spur of a single man, indorses the report of that committee. Mr. Speaker, I have no such poor opinion of the character of the membership of the House as to believe that a sense of responsibility to its constituents as to pass any measure under the whip and spur of any one man or half dozen men in this House. [Renewed applause.]

. . .

Mr. KENNEDY[7] of Ohio. . . . If this resolution should pass in the Chamber, then we may go home without performing our work here. This Chamber will be transformed from a deliberative Chamber into a wrangling club, and the country will not excuse us for any such mistake and blunder. It is a serious matter. You cannot go forward without rules. There is no one present here to-day who does not know that it is a mere pretense that this resolution is in order.

Let this resolution prevail and pass this Chamber, and how are we going to perform the business that we are sent here to perform? If it were in order I would make a motion to put off indefinitely the consideration of this whole matter that the serious affairs that we came here to consider may go forward in an orderly way. This is an important matter, and those that are responsible for changing the proceedings of this House into a debating club or a wrangling club will be held responsible to the country. [Applause.] . . .

Mr. FISH[8] . . . Now, Mr. Speaker, I said in my speech the other day that I should take every opportunity that might arise to amend the rules. I believe the people of this country, without regard to politics, believe in changing the rules. There has been no representative form of government in this Chamber under the rules. I would like to debate the question of changing the rules in every congressional district in this country, and I will undertake to say that the Republicans of nine out of ten of those districts would vote to change the rules. . . .

Mr. GARDNER of Michigan.[9] May I ask the gentleman a question?

Mr. FISH. Certainly; I am always ready.

Mr. GARDNER of Michigan. I would like to ask the gentleman from New York [Mr. FISH] if he believes an elected majority should control the House in ordinary legislation?

Mr. FISH. Mr. Speaker, I do so believe, when they act in the interest of the people, and the whole people. [Applause.]

Mr. GARDNER of Michigan. And who is to be the judge as to whether they act in the interest of the people?

Mr. FISH. Each individual Member on this floor is to be the judge according to his own conscience.

. . .

Mr. FISH. Mr. Speaker, I believe that the public attention of this country at the present time is more centered on the rules of this House than on any one question. I believe that that is the burning issue of the hour, and now is the time for us to act one way or the other. [Applause.]

. . . Mr. Speaker, I have taken up more time than I expected to, because gentlemen have interrupted me; but as for myself I shall take this opportunity, and I shall take every opportunity that arises during my term in Congress, to vote for a liberalization of the rules of this House and a restoration of representative government. [Loud applause]

Mr. FASSETT.[10] . . . [T]his debate has taken a little wider latitude than a close discussion of the resolution introduced, upon its merits or upon its parliamentary force and value, and has entered somewhat into the fundamental principles of party government and political administration, [so I beg indulgence] if I also depart from the subject immediately in hand.

. . .

We have developed inside of the Constitution, and outside of the Constitution, in accordance with the genius of our blood and our people, a government of a great people by great parties, parties that depend for their charters upon the votes of a free people from the various sections of the country, the highest source from which governmental charters have ever preceded, ever can proceed, or ever will proceed. Men who hold elective office in this country hold such office in every case because the majority of the qualified electors in their districts have given them a mandate to proceed to carry out the promises which the party the candidates represent had made; and good faith and the rules of the game require that men who have received such a trust shall discharge it for the benefit of the estate in strict accord with the terms of the trust. Any man is reprobated properly who betrays any trust that is given to him, whether it be as an alderman, a supervisor, a member of the assembly, a state senator, or as a member of Congress.

In this House we are divided by one great line of separation, invisible, but recognizable as clearly as that center aisle is recognizable. On one side are men who have come from constituencies who believe, however misguidedly, in the promises and platforms, in the principles, and in the purposes of the Democratic party. On the other side are men who come here because a majority of the people in their districts, seeing them nominated upon Republican platforms, accepting the Republican trust, believed they were going to come here as Republicans and govern themselves according to the purposes of the entire Republican party officially expressed. So every man who is a man, and not a jellyfish, is a partisan. It is not wrong to be a partisan, especially when partisanship addresses itself to the highest purposes of patriotism. We were all elected by partisans because we were partisans, and as such represented party purposes as expressed by party platforms. None of us received any commission to betray his party at any time, but each of us was elected by majorities which expected us to act with the majority of our party associates on all party matters. I take it that no Democrat was elected to cooperate with our party, nor was any Republican elected to hand over the Republican control of this House to our political opponents.

A man ought to have opinions and convictions. He ought not to be a political chocolate eclair. He has a right to his individual liberty of opinion and action; always, however, within the limits of the trust which has been bestowed upon him and which he has accepted from his party to act with the majority.

Now, parties, like governments, provide machinery whereby men may adjust differences of opinion. If we have 200 men on this side, I believe they are likely to have, if not 200 different opinions, at least 200 different kinds of opinion on almost any one of the great questions that concern the people of the United States, and we have planned to meet together and compare views. In my judgment, the place to adjust differences of opinion on unimportant questions, and on important questions of public policy and party policy is not in public, where one minority uniting with another minority may make a temporary majority; but in the family caucus, where we may adjust our opinions and govern ourselves, as representative government must always be controlled, by an expression properly taken in a proper place, of the will of the majority of those qualified to speak. In this way only can party efficiency and unity be maintained and party responsibility as distinguished from personal whim be preserved.

Now, we have heard a great deal here about what the majority of this House can do. We have heard some of the humorous remarks of the Speaker quoted with approval, and to-day, with a grim approval by the leader of the minority, that a majority of this House could pass anything. It is true, and the majority of this House ought to be able to control the action of this House. Apart from courteous treatment, apart from reasonable consideration to the minority, the majority ought absolutely to control everything that the House does, everything that emanates from this House. We Republicans were put here by the American people for that purpose. They had tried you gentlemen on the other side of the aisle, and, as John Sharp Williams once said here on the floor, they are afraid of you. They have tried us, and he said they had grown tired of us, but still we are here. Now, we [Republicans] have the power. The people gave it to us as Republicans. We may surrender it. We may give you any part or all of our power, but if we strip ourselves of every particle of our power we cannot strip ourselves of one iota of our responsibility, a responsibility we accepted as Republicans from Republicans. [Applause.] And when your turn comes, my Democratic friends, which I trust heaven may long defer, and you sit in the seats of the mighty, and you are in control, and you are confronted with the problem of reconciling your many irreconcilable bundles of alleged principles, announced in all your platforms, you will have to be responsible to the country; and the majority that ought to control in the House of Representatives or the Senate is not a temporary affiliation of two minorities, but the majority commissioned by the American people, with responsibility for all legislation and the enactment of all laws. [Applause.]

. . .

Now, Mr. Speaker, for seven years the present occupant of the Chair has been known to us and to the country as our Speaker, “Uncle Joe.” He is the same man now as then, with the same attitude toward men and toward the rules, the fairest presiding officer I have ever had the good luck to sit beneath. Twice by unanimous vote of Democrats and Republicans publicly thanked for his fairness. [Applause.] Lauded in private, exalted and reverenced in secret, but under the pressure of untoward and abhorrent forces, which I will not stop to recount, he is held up by political opponents for selfish reasons as a political bugaboo by the very men who will extol him in private. I say that his record in the Speaker’s chair challenged comparison with the record made by any presiding officer since the beginning of this country. [Applause on the Republican side.] And the only critics of the Speaker, without exception, will be men who are sore, men who are angry, because, like my friend from New York [Mr. FISH], their particular legislative baby has not been taken out of the committee cradle first. [Laughter and applause.]

. . . And look at the record! Look at the splendid Republican laws Congress has rolled up under these rules and under this Speaker—a magnificent record, unsurpassed, nay, unparalleled for constructive statesmanship and for beneficent results to our people, in the history of the legislation in any country. . . .

This is not a question, gentlemen—be not deceived—this is not a question merely of a change of rules. It is a question of a change of party control. It is a question of losing grip. It is a question of whether or not the powers of this Republican majority are to be emasculated by an unnatural and abhorrent alliance with our natural born enemies. [Laughter and applause on the Republican side.] . . .

We have much at stake, far higher and greater than satisfaction of any man’s resentment; it is the success of the Republican party’s program—the program we were sent here by Republicans to carry out. It is the success of Taft’s administration. [Applause on the Republican side.] It is the success or defeat of our great party. . . .

. . .

To substitute disorganization for organization, to substitute disorder for order, to substitute personal whim for party responsibility, to substitute the desire of two minorities to become a majority for the legally elected majority, to bereave the American people of its duly elected majority, is just as wrong now as it was in 1906, and those men who are eager here to assert their independence on this side, it seems to me, should again do, as we have all done in the past, subordinate their personal preferences to the opinions of an overwhelming majority of their Republican associates. In the light of the greater need of the greater people outside, in the need for remedial legislation, in view of the voices summoning us from every valley, from every hill, from every industry, every enterprise, let us do our work as Republicans because the Republican people summoned us to it.

These summonses and these voices, the incarnate voice of the Republican people of the United States of America, should drown out and overwhelm and smooth down beneath their waves every unimportant difference, and we should unite, as representing the American people and as a majority that has been given the power to accomplish that which we set out to do, as Republicans. In spite of the promises, in spite of the cajoleries, in spite of the denunciations and maledictions, in spite of the prophecies of disaster that emanate from our eager opponents, let us remain true as a Republican majority. [Applause on the Republican side.] . . .

Mr. NELSON.[11] Mr. Speaker, with mingled feelings of diffidence and hope I rise to address the House. The opportunity for which we have labored long and earnestly is at hand. The overthrow, in part, of the Speaker’s arbitrary power is now possible. Let us, therefore, force the issue and face the duty of the hour with the courage the cause demands.

Our cause is righteous. Public sentiment is with us. I see the beginning of the end of a long and arduous contest. . . .

Believing, however, that upon this matter I have special knowledge, I deem it my duty to reply to the gentleman from New York [Mr. Fassett], who has charged some of us with the heinous crime of helping Democracy. I would ask the honorable gentleman if he thinks we act from unworthy motives? He must know how unpleasant is the duty before us; how difficult it has been made by the so-called regulars; how much we risk by provoking the displeasure of our party associates in pursuing our determined course. All that men prize here of patronage, of privilege, and of power we have had to forgo for the sake of principle. Have we not been punished by every means at the disposal of the powerful House organization? Members long chairmen of important committees, other holding high rank—all with records of faithful and efficient party service to their credit—have been ruthlessly removed, deposed, and humiliated before their constituents and the country because, forsooth, they would not cringe or crawl before the arbitrary power of the Speaker and his House machine.

. . .

We are fighting for the right of free, fair, and full representation in this body for our respective constituencies. The so-called insurgent Republican represents as good citizenship as the regular does. The 200,000 or more citizens of the second district of Wisconsin have some rights of representation here under our Constitution. But what is that right under the despotic rules of this body? Merely the privilege to approve the will of a Representative from another state invested with the despotic power under artificial, unfair, and self-made rules of procedure.

We know, indeed, by bitter experience what representation means under these rules. It means that we must stand by the Speaker, right or wrong, or suffer the fate that we have endured. Let no one accuse us, therefore, of an alliance with Democracy for unworthy purposes. We are fighting with our Democratic brethren for the common right of equal representation in this House, and for the right of way of progressive legislation in Congress; and we are going to fight on at any cost until these inestimable rights have been redeemed for the people. [Applause.]

The gentleman eloquently appealed to the spirit of party. I appeal to the spirit of country. Let me call the gentleman’s attention to that part of George Washington’s Farewell Address, in which he speaks of the spirit of part and the despotism it may lead to if unchecked. . . . [Rep. Nelson then quoted extensively from Washington’s Farewell Address.]

. . .

The Speaker says he represents the majority. But how? He and his chief lieutenants—favorites or personal friends, a small minority within the majority—call themselves the party and then pass the word on to the rank and file of the Republican membership to line up or be punished. What is the controlling force? Party principles? No. The Speaker’s power under the rules—his patronage, the appointment of all committees, the 56 desirable chairmanships, the control of recognition on the floor, the close corporation of the Committee on Rules consisting of the Speaker himself and his two assistants—all these forces unite to form an autocracy against which we are in rebellion to-day. We are no less Republicans because we would be free members of Congress. We do not need to be kept in leading strings. We are free representatives of the people, and we want freedom here for every member of every party. [Applause.]

I wish to read a few more words from Washington’s Farewell Address: [Rep. Nelson then read some more from the Farewell Address.]

These words of Washington make it clear that party spirit and not patriotism sustains the Speaker’s autocracy. Love of party is good; love of country is better. . . .

We seek to redress a grievous wrong. No such usurpation of power exists in any other parliamentary nation. Elsewhere the occupant of the chair is an impartial presiding officer. Elsewhere the rules have been worked out on a basis of equality. No man has more opportunity, more rights, or more freedom that his colleagues. But with us it is a matter of privilege; here legislation goes by favor, and the Speaker is the dispenser of opportunity and power. He is the hub of the parliamentary wheel, his lieutenants are the spokes, and the House revolves around him.

We wish to change this arbitrary, artificial, and unrepublican system. We do not desire to deprive any Member of rights. We wish merely some rights for ourselves. . . .

Mr. FOELKER.[12] Mr. Speaker, I know of no more important question than the one that has presented itself to this body, since our predecessors in this chamber wrestled with the legislative problems antecedent to, during, and immediately succeeding the civil war.

It goes to the very root of popular self-government and its determination here will pass out as our opinion, whether this is a deliberative body or merely an automaton to be manipulated according to the views of a single individual, and be one of us. [Loud applause.]

Here is a body consisting of 391 members, of perhaps varying ability, but each, under the Constitution, intended to have equal powers with the others, and while each represents a separate and independent constituency, together we act for a nation now of quite 90,000,000 of people, extending from semi-tropical southern California, which borders upon our neighbor, Mexico, far into the arctic circle of our Alaskan possessions, who, sooner or later, will become citizens with us. . . .

Strange to say that one of us, sent here to represent a single district, has now become so powerful that he is regarded as the second man in the nation. While the Constitution provides that “the house of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other officers” (Act. I, sec. 2, clause 5), it does not give him any more influence or power. The power he has and does wield is entirely out of all proportion to the place he holds; it is a power fundamentally and diametrically opposed both to the spirit and letter of the Constitution, and is a distant menace to a representative form of government. . . .

At the beginning of each session it has been the custom to adopt the rules of the proceeding Congress, subject always to change. These provided for the election of a Speaker, and upon the Speaker is conferred the power of naming the committees to which, as preliminary to the action of the entire body, are committed the various matters that may rightfully and constitutionally come before us. There has grown up, as part of this system, a committee on rules, consisting of five members, three of whom represent the majority and, in fact, the chairman of the committee. Thus it will be seen the entire committee is the creature of the Speaker, and that at all times, with the two votes of his own party together with his own, he can control such legislation as must be passed upon by this committee. Now, by another rule, by which we have further tied our hands, this committee of five, or three, or really one, as it often happens, can and does determine to what committee proposed legislation shall go and how and when it should be moved. . . .

A resolution has been introduced here, which is now before us, the purpose and object of which is not to do away with this Committee on Rules but to increase the number, so that it will be more representative in its character; that it should be composed of members selected by the house itself and not appointed by the Speaker, and that the Speaker himself shall be confined to his more legitimate duties as a presiding officer. . . .

Without any argument it seems to be self-evident that such attempted interferences by a Committee on Rules with the wishes of the majority of this House is such a usurpation of a power as to be contrary to all received notions of our theory of government and revolutionary in its character. Instead of each house determining the rule of its proceedings, this committee of five, three, or one seeks to take upon itself this constitutional duty, to the exclusion of all of the other 390 members here. . . .

I am willing to take my chances of answering to my constituents that I serve them here to the best of my ability and have no commission from them to be gagged and bound by any Committee on Rules. . . .

Mr. REEDER.[13] Mr. Speaker, I am as much in favor of changing the rules of this House as any of the so-called insurgents. But I am very much opposed to the methods they employ to gain their ends. I regard it as very much more in line with our duty to our constituents to secure changes in the rules and all else we strive for as we did calendar Wednesday[14], through the Republican majority in Congress.

Mr. Speaker, in my judgement the question before us to-night is, Will we support this effort of a small minority of the majority party to set aside the theory that the majority shall rule?. . .

I call this method of joining forces with Democrats absolutely unfair to the people of this great Nation. They sent us here as a Republican majority to do certain things. This majority claims that they want a certain thing done—and I believe that it should be done—but these insurgents are taking a means to accomplish it that is contrary to the theory of a majority ruling. They came here pretending to be Republicans, and the people sent them here supposing they would act with the Republicans. They seem to think it proper to join hands with the enemies of republicanism, to strike down the grand old party of Lincoln, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft.

. . .

It may be very advisable to make this change in the rules, but the method of doing so which is adopted by the insurgents is absolutely unfair and unjust to the people of this great Republic. The minority party does not want it. Hence, I insist that only a small minority of the majority party that do desire such a change in the rules have no sufficient reason to use foul means to accomplish their wish in this matter. They insist that they will rule the majority at the foundation principle of our government; a very sacred principle to all patriotic people. I insist that they will hear from the patriotic people on their trampling this great American principle under their feet. The fact is, the Republican party is in the majority, and if there is a minority in that party who have convictions as to certain matters, they ought to go into the caucus and have the matter thrashed out there, and if they cannot convince the majority they ought to then abide by the will of the majority.

. . .

A small minority wants to force the majority party of this House to proceed in a manner it does not regard as parliamentary. In other words, they would force the majority to do the will of said minority, and in such a manner as to discredit the majority.

Mr. GRONNA,[15] The gentleman is in the minority now.

Mr. REEDER. I request the chair to see that the gentleman does not interrupt me at present. [Laughter.] I will wait for order on the Democratic side. [Renewed laughter.] . . .

. . .

I think that every rule of fair dealing—I wish to emphasize that fair dealing—demands that members sent here by the votes of a party shall not betray that party into the hands of their enemies. But that they shall deal with their party on the majority-rule principle.

The Republicans should run this government for the two years for which they were elected; and the majority of the Republicans should determine what that policy shall be. In my judgement, the minority of that party should not take any unfair and unjust methods to set aside the will of the majority, because the people have determined they want that rule for these two years, and by our success or failure we are to be judged.

A MEMBER. That is right.

  1. REEDER. Every move the Democrats help the insurgents to make which is contrary to the judgment of a majority of the Republicans of this House betrays the people’s will that the Republicans shall rule during this term of Congress. . . . I am inclined to think that the rules—

Mr. ELLERBE.[16] The gentleman says he is inclined to think! That is a wonderful inclination. [Democratic laughter.]

Mr. REEDER. When you gentleman get tied, I will proceed. The probability is that the rules ought to be changed in some respects. But the method that is here attempted to change them is certainly absolutely against the will of the people, who have decided that the Republican party come here to do the business for two years. I am talking against this method of yours, which is based on the theory that a small minority shall rule, or if not you will ruin; and if you are not doing that I do not know what this move you are assisting the Democrats to make means. Hence I say that while the rules need changing, the methods you use are inexcusable.

. . .

Mr. CANNON . . . [17] I merely want to make a statement, and I would like just a minute in which to make it. The appointment of the committee is made by the Speaker under the rules, unless the House should otherwise specifically order. The Speaker of the House in the exercise of that function is responsible to the House and to the country, this being a government through parties, and the Republican party has placed power in the Speaker as to the appointment of committees. . . .

The gentleman will further recall that the Republican side of the House held two caucuses, and the caucus by a large majority expressed its wish that the Committee on Banking and Currency should report that bill with or without favorable recommendation, so as to enable the House to work its will upon it by a majority. . . .

[T]he gentleman from Nebraska [Mr. NORRIS] failed to enter and abide by a Republican caucus, and this being a government through parties, for that, as well as for other sufficient reasons, the Speaker of the House, responsible to the House and to the country, made the appointment with respect to these gentleman as he conceived it to be his duty in the execution of the trust reposed in him. [Applause.]

. . .

Mr. COOPER of Wisconsin . . . . [18] Mr. Speaker, I have only one word more to say, and that is concerning the alleged binding power of the caucus.

The Speaker in his remarks a few minutes ago criticized certain Republican members because they did not obey the mandate of the caucus on the rules. I assert that no caucus has a right to bind a Member to vote for a set of rules, his party not having declared for them. Moreover, I deny here and now, that any number of men, say 51 out of 100 at a caucus—two more than a majority – or any other caucus majority, have authority under any circumstances to control my vote against my well-considered, honest judgement that rules adopted by a caucus would not be conducive to proper legislation not to a proper administration of the affairs of the House of Representatives.

. . .

I cannot consent that a caucus shall absolutely bind my judgement and control my vote on the vastly important question of what rules shall govern the House of Representatives.

Mr. Speaker, until after I listened to certain of the remarks made here to-night I had no thought of participating in this debate, although I feel very deeply on the subject now before the House. Years ago I saw the undue power which the rules give to a Speaker, and often since then I have seen members feel that power.

I know that the House must have a Speaker, must have rules, must be in some degree managed and controlled; but I know, also, that a Speaker ought not to be privileged in any manner nor to any degree to coerce a Member in the discharge of his official duties by having the power through his control over appointments to reward or to punish him. . . .

Under the Constitution this is a House of equals, each entitled to act and to vote free from every form of coercion and wrongful influence, and responsible only to his constituency and his conscience.

. . .

Mr. KEIFER.[19] I may say truthfully that the Committee on Rules never did anything except with the approval of the House, and every special rules that led us to do business has been reported from the committee under the rules, debated, and adopted by that sanctified thing, the majority of the House. That is all there is of it. That is the whole of it. There is nothing in the fact that the Speaker is chairman of that committee. He has been chairman of the Committee on Rules ever since the time when James Buchanan was President of the United States, and there was a cabal in this Capitol arranging, planning, and meeting nightly for the purpose of devising plans to overthrow the government.

Speaker James L. Orr, of South Carolina, was the first Speaker made chairman of the Committee on Rules, and this was in 1858. Now, since that time we have had some Democratic Speakers, and some pretty good ones too, and up to the present hour the Democrats did not want to depose him. The Democracy first made the place for him, and the Democracy when in power kept him in the place.

. . .

Mr. MANN . . . . [20] Mr. Speaker . . . , it is a popular belief in the country and in the House that the Committee on Rules dominates the House. I have been a Member of this House now for thirteen years and have had more or less to do with certain important bills, one creating the Department of Commerce and Labor, one the pure-food law, on the Hepburn Act, to amend the act regulating commerce, and various bills of that kind – important measures—among the most important measures that have passed the House. I do not refer to them with a view of adding to the importance of the work I did in connection with them, because that was of small moment, but because the bills impressed themselves upon me. Not one of those laws was passed under a special rule of the House limiting debate or cutting off the right of amendment.

It is not true, as many believe, that the Speaker, through the Committee on Rules does control the action of the House. It is not true that the Committee on Rules decides the usual program of legislation or what shall be considered in the House, or that it in any way affects ordinary bills or legislations in the House. The Committee on Rules is merely an instrumentality of the majority to bring speedily before the house some occasional measure which otherwise would be unduly delayed or to give to the House a chance to consider and vote upon a partisan matter over the attempts of the minority to delay or obstruct.

I recently read in an article by a noted newspaper and magazine writer a statement that no bill could come to a final vote in the House of Representatives without action by the Committee on Rules, and this seems to be a quite prevalent belief. Nothing could be farther from the actual truth. . . .

The truth is that the complaints that the Speaker, under the rules, is an autocrat usually emanate from those who have urged that the Speaker use autocratic power in their behalf or prostitute the personal and reserve power of the Committee on Rules to further their pet measures. When the Speaker has declined so to do- and he could not last long as Speaker if he acceded to so much requests- and refused to use his personal and official influence to further measures which were otherwise being duly considered, has been denounced as an autocrat because he would not attempt to be one. . . .

Speaker Cannon has always been willing to listen, but he must be convinced of the merits of a proposition before he advocates it or uses his personal influence, unless it becomes a public matter, when he always stands with the controlling majority of his party friends in the House.

It is not true that Speaker Cannon or any other Speaker is an autocrat in the House. It is true that the present Speaker is the leader and strongest influence in the House, and that he has been so for ten years, dating back to a time before he was Speaker and from the time that Speaker Reed left the House. We may some of us revile him temporarily. Great men have been abused at all times—such is the history of mankind—but when the book of history of this generation shall have been written, together with the legislation that has been enacted, the years of the speakership of Mr. Speaker Cannon will stand out among the most brilliant in the history of our country. [Applause on the Republican side.]

Study Questions

  1. On what grounds does Speaker Joseph Cannon defend his leadership and rule over the House of Representatives? Why does Cannon assert that there is no true majority in the House of Representatives, as evidenced by the decision to strip him of power? What does this indicate about Cannon’s theory of majority rule?
  2. In what ways is Cannon’s argument for strong party leadership in Congress similar to the arguments made by Thomas Brackett Reed (“Rules of the House of Representatives” and “Obstructions in the National House” and “A Deliberative Body”)? How is his view of the role of political parties similar to the views of Jacob Sloat Fassett during the Revolt of 1910 (The “Revolt of 1910” Against Speaker Joseph Cannon)?

Footnotes

  1. George Norris (1861–1944) was a representative from Nebraska who served five terms in the House of Representatives, and then thirty years in the U.S. Senate. A liberal Republican who was a staunch New Dealer, Norris was the leader of the insurgency to weaken the powers of the Speaker of the House in 1910. Norris is widely regarded by historians as one of the greatest senators in American history.
  2. Miles Poindexter (1868–1946) was a Republican representative from Washington who served a single full term in the House of Representatives. He was elected by the Washington State Legislature to the U.S. Senate in 1911, where he served until 1923.
  3. Sereno Payne (1843–1914) was a Republican member of the House from New York, and the first House Majority Leader. He chaired the powerful Ways and Means Committee for 12 years, and is best known for his role in passing the Payne-Aldrich Tariff of 1909.
  4. James Albertus Tawney (1855–1919) was a Republican member of the House from Minnesota who served from 1893–1911. He served as the first House Majority Whip, a position he held from 1899–1905. Like many of those who defended Speaker Cannon in this debate, Tawney lost his bid for reelection in 1910, when he was defeated in the Republican primary.
  5. John Dalzell (1845–1927) was a Republican representative from Pennsylvania who served from 1887–1913.
  6. Charles Crisp (1845–1896) was a Democrat from Georgia who served as Speaker of the House from 1891–1895. During Crisp’s tenure as Speaker he consolidated the Speaker’s power by maintaining the Speaker’s position as chair of the Rules Committee.
  7. James Kennedy (1853–1928) was a Republican member of the House from Ohio who served from 1903–1911. A defender of party government, Kennedy lost his bid for reelection in 1910. Kennedy eventually ran for election to the House as a Democrat in 1926, but lost that election as well.
  8. Hamilton Fish II (1849–1936) was a representative from New York who served a single term in the House of Representatives. A Republican, he was the father of Hamilton Fish III, also a member of the House, and the grandfather of Hamilton Fish IV, who also served in the House of Representatives.
  9. Washington Gardner (1845–1928) was a member of the House of Representatives from Michigan who served from 1899–1911. A Republican, he was a defender of Cannon who lost his bid for reelection in 1910.
  10. Jacob Sloat Fassett (1853–1924) was a Republican representative from New York who served from 1905–1911. Prior to joining the House, Fassett served as president pro tempore of the New York State Senate and as secretary of the Republican National Committee from 1888 to 1892. He lost his seat in the 1910 elections.
  11. John Nelson (1870–1955) was a Republican representative from Wisconsin who served in the House from 1906–1919 and 1921–1933.
  12. Otto Foelker (1875–1943) was a representative in the House of Representatives from New York. He won a special election to replace a deceased member of the House in 1908 and served from 1908–1911.
  13. William Reeder (1849–1929) was a representative from Kansas who served in the House from 1899–1911. He lost his seat when he was defeated in a Republican primary in 1910.
  14. The Calendar Wednesday procedure was initially established in 1909. This rule, still in effect today, allows committees to bring legislation to the floor for discussion and a vote on Wednesdays, when a roll call of committees takes place. Because it is a cumbersome procedure to employ, it is almost never used.
  15. Asle Gronna (1858–1922) was a representative from North Dakota who served in both the House and the Senate. A progressive Republican, he served from 1905–1911 in the House, resigning his seat as a result of his election by the state legislature to the Senate, where he served from 1911–1921.
  16. J. Edwin Ellerbe (1867–1917) was a representative from South Carolina who served in the House from 1905–1913. A Democrat, he lost his seat in the 1912 elections when he was defeated in the Democratic primary.
  17. Joseph Gurney Cannon (1836–1926) was a representative from Illinois who served as Speaker of the House from 1903–1911. A formidable figure, Cannon dominated the House of Representatives during the first decade of the twentieth century. He was featured on the cover of Time Magazine’s first issue when he retired from politics in 1923.
  18. Henry Allen Cooper (1850–1931) was a Republican member of the House from Wisconsin who served from 1893–1919 and 1921–1931.
  19. J. Warren Keifer (1836–1932) was a member of the House of Representatives from Ohio from 1877–1885 and from 1905–1911. A Republican, Keifer served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1881–1883. He also served as a major general during the Spanish-American War.
  20. James Mann (1856–1922) was a progressive Republican from Illinois who served in the House from 1897–1922. He is known for introducing several pieces of important legislation, including the Mann-Elkins Act which regulated railroad rates and the Mann Act, which prohibited transportation of women across state lines for purposes of prostitution. When Republicans lost the House in the 1910 elections, they selected Mann to serve as the Minority Leader of the House, a position he held from 1911–1919.