Disappearing quorum

Disappearing quorum

The disappearing quorum was a practice used by the minority party to prevent voting in the United States House of Representatives. By refusing to vote and be recorded as absent while in fact physically present, a quorum was not achieved and the vote did not count.

The practice was shattered on January 29, 1890. On that day a resolution was brought to the House floor that concerned who should be seated from the Fourth District of West Virginia: James M. Jackson, the Democrat, or Charles B. Smith, the Republican. Speaker Thomas Reed put this question to the Members: "Will the House consider the resolution?"

The yeas and nays were demanded with this result: 162 yeas, 3 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--a quorum was 179--prevented the House from making decisions. But Speaker Reed directed the Clerk to record as present but not voting a sufficient number of Members to constitute an official quorum for the transaction of legislative business.

Immediately, Reed's action produced an uproar in the House that lasted several days. "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. Reed even ordered the doors of the chamber locked when Democrats tried to exit. 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).

The quorum

The disappearing quorum is not in reality the failure of a legislative body to achieve a quorum, since the necessary members are actually present. When the disappearing quorum is not allowed, only the physical absence of sufficient members can create the lack of a quorum. See quorum for discussion of the actual procedure and quorum-busting techniques, including the recent 2003 quorum battle in the State of Texas.


* The [http://www.house.gov/rules/pre20th_rules.htm House Rules Committee website]

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