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5: Party Policy in Congress

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While President Cleveland was successfully asserting his executive authority, the House of Representatives, too, was trying to assert its authority; but its choice of means was such that it was badly beaten and was reduced to a state of humble subordination from which it has never emerged. Its traditional procedure was arranged on the theory that Congress ought to propose as well as to enact legislation, and to receive recommendations from all quarters without preference or discrimination. Although the Constitution makes it the right and duty of the President to "recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient," measures proposed by the Administration stand on the same footing under the rules as those proposed by the humblest citizen of the United States. In both cases, they are allowed to reach Congress only in the form of a bill or resolution introduced by a member of Congress, and they go on the files without any distinction as to rank and position except such as pertains to them from the time and order in which they are introduced. Under the rules, all measures are distributed among numerous committees, each having charge of a particular class, with power to report favorably or adversely. Each committee is constituted as a section of the whole House, with a distribution of party representation corresponding to that which exists in the House.

Viewed as an ideal polity, the scheme has attractive features. In practice, however, it is attended with great disadvantages. Although the system was originally introduced with the idea that it would give the House of Representatives control over legislative business, the actual result has been to reduce this body to an impotence unparalleled among national representative assemblies in countries having constitutional government. In a speech delivered on December 10, 1885, William M. Springer of Illinois complained: "We find ourselves bound hand and foot, the majority delivering themselves over to the power of the minority that might oppose any particular measures, so that nothing could be done in the way of legislation except by unanimous consent or by a two-thirds vote." As an instance of legislative paralysis, he related that "during the last Congress a very important bill, that providing for the presidential succession... was reported from a committee of which I had the honor to be a member, and was placed on the calendar of the House on the 21st day of April, 1884; and that bill, which was favored by nearly the entire House, was permitted to die on the calendar because there never was a moment, when under the rules as they then existed, the bill could be reached and passed by the House." During the whole of that session of Congress, the regular calendar was never reached. "Owing to the fact that we could not transact business under the rules, all business was done under unanimous consent or under propositions to suspend the rules upon the two Mondays in each month on which suspensions were allowed." As a two-thirds majority was necessary to suspend the rules, any considerable minority had a veto power.

The standing committees, whose ostensible purpose was to prepare business for consideration, were characterized as legislative cemeteries. Charles B. Lore of Delaware, referring to the situation during the previous session, said: "The committees were formed, they met in their respective committee rooms day after day, week after week, working up the business which was committed to them by this House, and they reported to this House 8290 bills. They came from the respective committees, and they were consigned to the calendars of this House, which became for them the tomb of the Capulets; most of them were never heard of afterward. From the Senate there were 2700 bills.... Nine tenths of the time of the committees of the Forty-eighth Congress was wasted. We met week after week, month after month, and labored over the cases prepared, and reported bills to the House. They were put upon the calendars and there were buried, to be brought in again and again in succeeding Congresses."

William D. Kelley of Pennsylvania bluntly declared: "No legislation can be effectually originated outside the Committee on Appropriations, unless it be a bill which will command unanimous consent or a stray bill that may get a two-thirds vote, or a pension bill." He explained that he excepted pension bills "because we have for several years by special order remitted the whole subject of pensions to a committee who bring in their bills at sessions held one night in each week, when ten or fifteen gentlemen decide what soldiers may have pensions and what soldiers may not."

The Democratic party found this situation extremely irritating when it came into power in the House. It was unable to do anything of importance or even to define its own party policy, and in the session of Congress beginning in December, 1885, it sought to correct the situation by amending the rules. In this undertaking it had sympathy and support on the Republican side. The duress under which the House labored was pungently described by Thomas B. Reed, who was just about that time revealing the ability that gained for him the Republican leadership. In a speech, delivered on December 16, 1885, he declared: "For the last three Congresses the representatives of the people of the United States have been in irons. They have been allowed to transact no public business except at the dictation and by the permission of a small coterie of gentlemen, who, while they possessed individually more wisdom than any of the rest of us, did not possess all the wisdom in the world."

The coterie alluded to by Mr. Reed was that which controlled the committee on appropriations. Under the system created by the rules of the House, bills pour in by tens of thousands. A member of the House, of a statistical turn of mind, once submitted figures to the House showing that it would take over sixty-six years to go through the calendars of one session in regular order, allowing an average of one minute for each member to debate each bill. To get anything done, the House must proceed by special order, and as it is essential to pass the appropriations to keep up the government, a precedence was allowed to business reported by that committee which in effect gave it a position of mastery. O. R. Singleton of Mississippi, in the course of the same debate, declared that there was a "grievance which towers above all others as the Alps tower above the surrounding hills. It is the power resting with said committee, and oftentimes employed by it, to arrest any legislation upon any subject which does not meet its approval. A motion to go into committee of the whole to consider appropriation bills is always in order, and takes precedence of all other motions as to the order of business." The practical effect of the rules was that, instead of remaining the servant of the House, the committee became its master. Not only could the committee shut off from any consideration any measure to which it was opposed, but it could also dictate to the House the shape in which its own bills should be enacted. While the form of full consideration and amendment is preserved, the terms of a bill are really decided by a conference committee appointed to adjust differences between the House and the Senate. John H. Reagan of Texas stated that "a conference committee, made up of three members of the appropriations committee, acting in conjunction with a similar conference committee on the part of the Senate, does substantially our legislation upon this subject of appropriations." In theory, the House was free to accept or reject the conference committee's report. Practically the choice lay between the bill as fixed by the conference committee or no bill at all during that session. Mr. Reagan stated the case exactly when he said that it meant "letting six men settle what the terms are to be, beyond our power of control, unless we consent to a called session of Congress."

To deal with this situation, the House had refused to adopt the rules of the preceding Congress; and after electing John G. Carlisle as Speaker and authorizing the appointment of a committee on rules, it deferred the appointment of the usual legislative committees until after a new set of rules had been adopted. The action of the Speaker in constituting the Rules Committee was scrupulously fair to the contending interests. It consisted of himself, Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania, and William R. Morrison of Illinois from the Democratic side of the House; and of Thomas B. Reed of Maine and Frank Hiscock of New York from the Republican side. On the 14th of December, the committee made two reports: a majority report presented by Mr. Morrison and a minority report presented by Mr. Randall and signed by him alone.

These reports and the debates which followed are most disappointing. What was needed was a penetrating discussion of the means by which the House could establish its authority and perform its constitutional functions. But it is a remarkable circumstance that at no time was any reference made to the only way in which the House can regain freedom of action—namely, by having the Administration submit its budget demands and its legislative proposals directly to the committee of the whole House. The preparatory stages could then be completed before the opening of the legislative session. Congress would thus save the months of time that are now consumed in committee incubation and would almost certainly be assured of opportunity of considering the public business. Discrimination in legislative privilege among members of the House would then be abolished, for every member would belong to the committee on appropriations. It is universally true in constitutional governments that power over appropriations involves power over legislation, and the only possibility of a square deal is to open that power to the entire membership of the assembly, which is the regular practice in Switzerland and in all English commonwealths. The House could not have been ignorant of the existence of this alternative, for the whole subject had been luminously discussed in the Senate Report of February 4,1881. It was, therein, clearly pointed out that such an arrangement would prevent paralysis or inaction in Congress. With the Administration proposing its measures directly to Congress, discussion of them and decisions upon them could not be avoided.

But such a public forum could not be established without sweeping away many intrenchments of factional interest and private opportunity, and this was not at all the purpose of the committee on rules. It took its character and direction from an old feud between Morrison and Randall. Morrison, as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in 1876, had reported a tariff reform measure which was defeated by Randall's influence. Then Randall, who had succeeded to the Speakership, transferred Morrison from the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee to the chairmanship of the committee on public lands. But Morrison was a man who would not submit to defeat. He was a veteran of the Civil War, and had been severely wounded in leading his regiment at Fort Donelson. After the war, he figured in Illinois politics and served as Speaker of the State Legislature. He entered Congress in 1873 and devoted himself to the study of the tariff with such intelligence and thoroughness that his speeches are still an indispensable part of the history of tariff legislation. His habitual manner was so mild and unassuming that it gave little indication of the force of his personality, which was full of energy and perseverance.

Randall was more imperious in his mien. He was a party leader of established renown which he had gained in the struggles over force bills at the close of the reconstruction period. His position on the tariff was that of a Pennsylvania protectionist, and upon the tariff reform issue in 1883, he was defeated for the Speakership. At that time, John G. Carlisle of Kentucky was raised to that post, while Morrison again became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. But Randall, now appointed chairman of the Appropriations Committee, had so great an influence that he was able to turn about forty Democratic votes against the tariff bill reported by the Ways and Means Committee, thus enabling the Republicans to kill the bill by striking out the enacting clause.

Only this practical aim, then, was in view in the reports presented by the committee on rules. The principal feature of the majority report was a proposal to curtail the jurisdiction of the Appropriations Committee by transferring to other committees five of the eleven regular appropriation bills. What, from the constitutional point of view, would appear to be the main question—the recovery by the House of its freedom of action—was hardly noticed in the report or in the debates which followed. Heretofore, the rules had allotted certain periods to general business; now, the majority report somewhat enlarged these periods and stipulated that no committee should bring more than one proposal before the House until all other committees had had their turn. This provision might have been somewhat more effective had it been accompanied by a revision of the list of committees such as was proposed by William M. Springer. He pointed out that there were a number of committees "that have no business to transact or business so trifling and unimportant as to make it unnecessary to have standing committees upon such subjects"; he proposed to abolish twenty-one of these committees and to create four new ones to take their place; he showed that "if we allow these twenty useless committees to be again put on our list, to be called regularly in the morning hour... forty-two days will be consumed in calling these committees"; and, finally, he pointed out that the change would effect a saving since it would "do away with sixteen committee clerkships."

This saving was, in fact, fatal to the success of Springer's proposal, since it meant the extinction of so many sinecures bestowed through congressional favor. In the end, Springer reduced his proposed change to the creation of one general committee on public expenditures to take the place of eight committees on departmental expenditures. It was notorious that such committees did nothing and could do nothing, and their futility, save as dispensers of patronage, had been demonstrated in a startling manner by the effect of the Acts of July 12, 1870, and June 20, 1874, requiring all unused appropriations to be paid into the Treasury. The amounts thus turned into the Treasury aggregated $174,000,000 and in a single bureau there was an unexpended balance of $36,000,000, which had accumulated for a quarter of a century because Congress had not been advised that no appropriation was needed. Mr. Springer remarked that, during the ten years in which he had been a member of Congress, he had observed with regard to these committees "that in nearly all cases, after their appointment, organization, and the election of a clerk, the committee practically ceased to exist, and nothing further is done." William R. Morrison at once came to the rescue of the endangered sinecures and argued that even although these committees had been inactive in the past they "constituted the eyes, the ears, and the hands of the House." In consequence, after a short debate Mr. Springer's motion was rejected without a division.

The arrangements subsequently made to provide time and opportunity for general legislation, turned out in practice to be quite futile and indeed they were never more than a mere formal pretense. It was quite obvious, therefore, that the new rules tended only to make the situation worse than before. Thomas Ryan of Kansas told the plain truth when he said: "You do not propose to remedy any of those things of which you complain by any of the rules you have brought forward. You propose to clothe eight committees with the same power, with the same temptation and capacity to abuse it. You multiply eightfold the very evils of which you complain." James H. Blount of Georgia sought to mitigate the evils of the situation by giving a number of other committees the same privilege as the appropriation committees, but this proposal at once raised a storm, for appropriation committees had leave to report at any time, and to extend the privilege would prevent expeditious handling of appropriation bills. Mr. Blount's motion was, therefore, voted down without a division.

While in the debate, the pretense of facilitating routine business was ordinarily kept up; occasional intimations of actual ulterior purpose leaked out, as when John B. Storm of Pennsylvania remarked that it was a valuable feature of the rules that they did hamper action and "that the country which is least governed is the best governed, is a maxim in strict accord with the idea of true civil liberty." William McKinley was also of the opinion that barriers were needed "against the wild projects and visionary schemes which will find advocates in this House." Some years later, when the subject was again up for discussion, Thomas B. Reed went to the heart of the situation when he declared that the rules had been devised not to facilitate action but to obstruct it, for "the whole system of business here for years has been to seek methods of shirking, not of meeting, the questions which the people present for the consideration of their representatives. Peculiar circumstances have caused this. For a long time, one section of the country largely dominated the other. That section of the country was constantly apprehensive of danger which might happen at any time by reason of an institution it was maintaining. Very naturally, all the rules of the House were bent for the obstruction of action on the part of Congress." It may be added that these observations apply even more forcibly, to the rules of the Senate. The privilege of unrestricted debate was not originally granted by those rules but was introduced as a means of strengthening the power of sectional resistance to obnoxious legislation.

The revision of the rules in 1885, then, was not designed really to facilitate action by the House, but rather to effect a transfer of the power to rule the House. It was at least clear that under the proposed changes the chairman of the committee on appropriations would no longer retain such complete mastery as Randall had wielded, and this was enough to insure the adoption of the majority report. The minority report opposed this weakening of control on the ground that it would be destructive of orderly and responsible management of the public funds. Everything which Randall said on that point has since been amply confirmed by much sad experience. Although some leading Republicans, among whom was Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois, argued strongly in support of Randall's views, the temper of the House was such that the majority in favor of the change was overwhelming, and on December 18, 1885, the Morrison plan was finally adopted without a roll call.

The hope that the change in organization would expedite action on appropriation bills, was promptly disappointed. Only one of the fourteen regular appropriation bills became law before the last day of the fiscal year. The duress to which the House was subject became tighter and harder than before, and the Speakership entered upon a development unparalleled in constitutional history. The Speaker was practically in a position to determine what business the House might consider and what it might not, and the circumstances were such as to breed a belief that it was his duty to use his discretion where a choice presented itself. It is obvious that, when on the floor of the House there are a number of applicants for recognition, the Speaker must choose between them. All cannot be allowed to speak at once. There is no chance to apply the shop rule, "first come first served," for numerous applications for the floor come at the same time. Shall the Speaker choose at random or according to some definite principle of selection? In view of the Speaker's interest in the welfare of the party which raised him to the office, he would naturally inquire in advance the purpose for which the recognition of the chair was desired. It was a manifest step towards orderly procedure in session, however, when instead of crowding around the clerk's desk bawling for recognition, members applied to the Speaker in advance. In Speaker Blaine's time, this had become a regular practice and ever since then, a throng of members at the Speaker's office trying to arrange with him for recognition has been a daily occurrence during a legislative session. Samuel W. McCall, in his work on The Business of Congress, says that the Speaker "usually scrutinizes the bill and the committee's report upon it, and in case of doubt he sometimes refers them to a member in whom he has confidence, for a more careful examination than he himself has time to give."

Under Speaker Carlisle, this power to censor proposals was made conspicuous through the factional war in the Democratic party. For several sessions of Congress, a bill had been pending to repeal the internal revenue taxes upon tobacco, and it had such support that it might have passed if it could have been reached for consideration. On February 5, 1887, a letter was addressed to Speaker Carlisle by three prominent Democrats: Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania, George D. Wise of Virginia, and John S. Henderson of North Carolina, saying: "At the instance of many Democratic members of the House, we appeal to you earnestly to recognize on Monday next, some Democrat who will move to suspend the rules for the purpose of giving the House an opportunity of considering the question of the total repeal of the internal revenue taxes on tobacco." The letter went on to argue that it would be bad policy to let a Republican have credit for a proposal, which it was declared "will command more votes than any other measure pending before the House looking towards a reduction in taxation; and favorable action on this proposition will not interfere with other efforts that are being made to reduce the burden of the people."

Speaker Carlisle, however, refused to allow the House to consider the matter on the ground that negotiations with Randall and his friends for concerted party action had so far been fruitless. "Among other things," he wrote, "we proposed to submit the entire subject to a caucus of our political friends, with the understanding that all parties would abide by the result of its action.... We have received no response to that communication, and I consider that it would not be proper under the circumstances for me to agree to a course of action which would present to the House a simple proposition for the repeal of the internal revenue tax on tobacco, snuff and cigars, to the exclusion of all other measures for the reduction of taxation." The letter closed by "sincerely hoping that some plan may yet be devised which will enable the House to consider the whole subject of revenue reduction."

No one was less of an autocrat in temper and habit of thought than Speaker Carlisle, and he assumed this position in deference to a recognized function of his office, supported by a long line of precedents. The case was, therefore, a signal illustration of the way in which the House has impaired its ability to consider legislation by claiming the exclusive privilege of proposing legislation. If the rules had allowed the President to propose his measures directly to the House, then the way would have been opened for a substitute or an amendment. As it was, the House was able to act only upon matters within the control of a few persons advantageously posted, and none of the changes of rules that have been made from time to time have seriously disturbed this fundamental situation.

Notwithstanding the new rules adopted in December, 1885, nothing of importance was accomplished by the House. On February 15, 1886, William R. Morrison introduced a tariff bill making a moderate reduction in rates of duty, which, after considerable amendment in the committee of ways and means, was reported to the House on the 12th of April; but no further action was taken until the 17th of June, when Morrison moved that the House go into committee of the whole to consider the bill. Thirty-five Democrats voted with the Republicans against the motion, which was defeated by 157 nays to 140 yeas. No further attempt was made to take up the bill during that session, and in the ensuing fall Morrison was defeated as a candidate for reelection. Before leaving Congress he tried once more to obtain consideration of his bill but in vain. Just as that Congress was expiring, John S. Henderson of North Carolina was at last allowed to move a suspension of the rules in order to take a vote on a bill to reduce internal revenue taxes, but he failed to obtain the two-thirds vote required for suspension of the rules.

That the proceedings of the Forty-ninth Congress were not entirely fruitless, was mainly due to the initiative and address of the Senate. Some important measures were thus pushed through, among them the act regulating the presidential succession and the act creating the Interstate Commerce Commission. The first of these provided for the succession of the heads of departments in turn, in case of the removal, death, resignation, or inability of both the President and the Vice-President.

The most marked legislative achievement of the House was an act regulating the manufacture and sale of oleomargarine, to which the Senate assented with some amendment, and which was signed with reluctance by the President, after a special message to the House sharply criticizing some of the provisions of the act. A bill providing for arbitration of differences between common carriers and their employees was passed by the Senate without a division, but it did not reach the President until the closing days of the session and failed of enactment because he did not sign it before the final adjournment. Taken as a whole, then, the record of the Congress elected in 1884 showed that while the Democratic party had the Presidency and the House of Representatives, the Republican party, although defeated at the polls, still controlled public policy through the agency of the Senate.

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