The Most Important Politician You've Never Heard Of

May 29, 2011

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has a big job: corralling the different elements of his own party, and at the same time trying to bring both parties together to make laws.

More than a century ago, Thomas Reed was doing the same thing. Though he's forgotten today, Reed — a Republican from Maine — was one of the most effective and important speakers in history. His changes to parliamentary procedure turbocharged the House's ability to get things done, letting government develop the size and scope it has today.

In 1890, when Reed took over the speaker's gavel, the House did almost nothing on an average day.

"They sat in the chamber and read newspapers and spat into their spittoons. That's what they did," author James Grant tells weekend on All Things Considered host Rachel Martin. Grant has written a new biography of Thomas Reed, called Mr. Speaker!: The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, the Man Who Broke the Filibuster.

Technically, you can only filibuster in the Senate. But the word here refers to a host of obstructionist tactics used in Reed's time by whichever party was out of power.

"A willful minority could simply stop the House cold," Grant says.

One particularly problematic trick was called the disappearing quorum. According to the Constitution, the House must have a quorum, a minimum number of people present before it can do any business.

"And that seems obvious enough," says Grant, "but what is not so obvious is, what is a quorum? Is it the people present in their seats, or is it those who choose to answer during a roll call? For most of Reed's career, it was the latter. If you didn't choose to speak up, you weren't there."

That meant no quorum, which meant no business got done. That was an ideal situation for the Democratic Party of that era, which supported limited government, much like modern Republicans. But it infuriated Reed, who had been in the much more efficient Maine state legislature.

Reed decided to take action. He was a master parliamentarian, Grant says, able to play the rulebook almost like an instrument. And he changed history with just 17 words: "The Chair directs the Clerk to record the following names of members present and refusing to vote."

"That was it," Grant says. "Those seventeen words were the invitation to perfect pandemonium," as the minority Democrats realized their disappearing quorum tactic wouldn't work anymore — and that the majority party would now be able to start expanding the size and scope of government. The changes meant business could be done more efficiently, so more and more business began to be done.

Grant says Reed lived to rue his actions, especially after the United States went to war with Spain in 1898. "What Reed finally wrought was a government that was just as muscular, just as prone to intervention, just as capable of waging a war of choice as the Democrats warned him."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit