Harry Reid's House DoppelgangerRoundup: Historians' Take
tags: Harry Reid, Thomas Reed, nuclear option
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went nuclear yesterday. For decades, it has taken a supermajority of 60 votes for the Senate to invoke “cloture” -- or end debate -- on most matters of importance. In practice, that has meant that the minority party can readily hold up legislation, presidential nominations and other business by threatening to filibuster.
Republicans are outraged, and it’s hard to blame them. The so-called nuclear option triggered yesterday allows presidential nominees -- excluding Supreme Court justices -- to be approved by a simple majority vote. By doing so, Reid has overturned a longstanding legislative practice that has been useful to the Republican Party in recent years. But claims that his action is unprecedented miss the mark. Reid was merely channeling another guy with a very similar name: Thomas Reed of Maine.
In the late 19th century, minority obstructionism was just as big a deal as it is today, with one big difference: The House, not the Senate, was where majority will went to die. In the 1870s and 1880s, the minority party (most often the Democrats) found that it could readily thwart the Republican majority by deploying a tactic known as the “disappearing quorum.”
This bit of obstructionism, which the Washington Post described as a “common form of filibustering,” exploited procedural rules requiring that a quorum -- in other words, a simple majority -- be present when the speaker of the House took a vote. If the Democrats in the minority found legislation distasteful or objectionable, they would pointedly refuse to respond to the roll call, as if they were absent. This effectively denied the Republicans a quorum and torpedoed whatever business or legislation was under consideration. The Democratic minority also brought the House Republicans to heel by endlessly, pointlessly, moving to adjourn....
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