Book Reviews

The Fall of the House of Representatives

The long, sad slide from Henry Clay to Tom DeLay

By Brad Carson

Tagged CongressHistory

The House: The History of the House of Representatives By Robert V. Remini • Smithsonian • 2006 • 624 pages • $34.95

Henry Clay was by all accounts a brilliant, eloquent, and altogether remarkable politician. Not only was he said to be the greatest dancer of his generation, Clay single-handedly transformed the House of Representatives into a functioning legislature and forestalled the Civil War by decades. But the Great Compromiser’s intellect, although widely praised, had one rather peculiar, if chronic, lacuna: a complete inability to remember poetry. For Clay, this was particularly troublesome, as he was wont to burst out with a few lines of favored verse amid orations that, in typically nineteenth-century fashion, could last for hours. Once, when Clay garbled an obscure passage from Hamlet during a speech on the House floor, several members jointly and acidly
shouted out the correct phrases, greatly embarrassing the Kentuckian.

This incident is recorded in the magisterial and door-stopping
biography of Clay by Robert Remini, a professor emeritus at the
University of Illinois at Chicago and the nation’s leading historian of
antebellum America, whose other works include award-winning studies of
Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and Daniel Webster. For Remini,
Clay’s struggle with poetry was an amusing foible, a small crease on
the smooth surface of greatness. But for modern observers of the House,
the anecdote–not to mention the great struggles of that earlier era–
gives the Congress of Clay’s day a distant feel. The institution now
headed by Dennis Hastert may share the same name as that led by Clay,
but which member of Congress today reads Shakespeare? Is it possible to
imagine a single twenty-first-century politician–much less several–who
is so confidently educated as to recognize a minor quotation from the
Bard, much less a misquotation? Even if such politicians were to be
found, they wouldn’t be present on the House floor during another
member’s speech. Rather, they’d be holed up in their office, probably
meeting with a lobbyist, with (at best) a watchful eye on the
now-televised floor proceedings. And the issues that confront today’s
member of Congress hardly seem to be as existential as the Compromise
of 1850 or the Kansas-Nebraska Act; a sense of personal and
professional triviality pervades.

The distance from Clay to Hastert can only be measured along a steep
descent. It is for this reason that Remini’s new history of the House
of Representatives reads like a chronicle of degeneration, a
well-wrought record of the decay of American politics and, perhaps, of
American character, too. The House once was the very heart of
democracy; such was its prestige that Clay himself left the Senate to
seek election to what he called the “people’s chamber.” Clay was joined
in his esteem for the House by men like Daniel Webster, James G.
Blaine, and Cordell Hull, whose love for the institution was matched
only by the quality of their public service within it. But the House
hasn’t seen their like in quite some time. Remini, whom the House
requested write its history, would no doubt disagree, but his own fine
telling leads to no other conclusion.

I served in the House of Representatives from 2001 to 2005. I was
routinely required to vote on bills that not a single member of the
body had read–a bill with hundreds, even thousands, of pages would be
presented to the full House for a vote just a few hours after its
drafting. The work week usually started on Tuesday evening and
concluded by noon on Thursday, and there was rarely a vote of any
consequence. Any significant vote invariably and inexplicably took
place between midnight and six in the morning, which I and other young
members concluded was done to minimize the number of cspan viewers, who
would no doubt be shocked at the griminess of the proceedings.
Committee hearings had the spontaneity of kabuki, and they were usually
sparsely attended by members. With a growing number of members coming
from safe districts, there was neither a check on, nor penalty for,
raging partisanship and naked demagoguery. And for those few members
either ambitious for higher office or, more rarely, in competitive
districts, fundraising was a concern that trumped nearly all others;
each week, dozens of hours were devoted to the thankless task of
cold-calling high-net-worth individuals or meeting with lobbyists who
controlled political action committees. When you left office, you were
almost expected to join a trade association or become a lobbyist. I
left the House convinced that, the usual encomiums to American genius
aside, something had indeed been lost in the two centuries of the

The Founding Fathers intended the House of Representatives to be the
fulcrum of American government, though making it so required a large
dose of initial imagination. The First Congress, dominated by
Federalists, had few rules and no precedents on which to rely when it
met in New York City’s Federal Hall. The Founders even had to guess at
the population of each state in apportioning representatives, and the
resulting errors vitiated the representative quality of the first
meeting. Fortunately, the travails and intrigues of the colonial period
had created an entire class of well-trained leaders like James Madison,
who dominated the First Congress. Indeed, only two members of the First
Congress lacked previous public service. And the people of the new
nation were keenly interested in self-government–in the early years
of the House, legislation was often a direct response to citizens’

But, if the Founders had dreamed of an institution immune from the
unsavory compromises of party politics, the House of Representatives
soon betrayed that vision. By the second session of the First Congress,
partisanship had emerged, usually based on the regionalism that haunted
the nineteenth century and that, to a lesser extent, still stands
today. Quickly in the life of the new republic, slavery rose to the
surface as the one seemingly insoluble problem that confronted the
House of Representatives. From the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the
Wilmot Proviso two decades later (which argued for a slavery ban in
territory won in the Mexican-American War), the House was central to
this critical debate–and over time reflected the chaos and chasms of
American society.

The House of Representatives during the 1840s and early 1850s was
populated by Know-Nothings, Free Soilers, Northern and Southern Whigs,
and a divided Democratic Party, all of whom gave the institution a
tumultuous feel. In 1849, the election for speaker took three weeks and
more than 60 ballots. In 1855, the election for speaker took 133
ballots. Characteristic of the House were men like William Yancey of
Alabama, of whom it was said that a duel was only a “pleasant morning
recreation.” Even the great Henry Clay routinely challenged opponents
to duels, including one with John Randolph of Roanoke, a flamboyant
Virginian well-known for aggression and for bringing his hound dogs
onto the House floor. Before House debates in the run-up to the Civil
War, congressmen would arm themselves with knives and pistols; many,
perhaps most, House members carried derringers to protect themselves
from sudden attack. There was reason for fear: in 1856, Congressman
Preston Brooks of South Carolina marched over to the Senate, where he
brutally attacked Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts for insulting
Southern honor. Disorder quickly became bedlam after the deaths in 1850
of John Calhoun and in 1852 of Clay and Daniel Webster, who had done so
much to bottle up the centrifugal tendencies that, in their absence,
would soon violently overtake the nation.

The years leading up to the Civil War and Reconstruction saw the
verbal, if not physical, violence continue. Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus
Stevens and Galusha Grow, two more of the many remarkable men who
served in the House during the nineteenth century, aggressively pushed
the radical Republican cause. For Stevens and Grow, the oncoming war
was not a terrible ravage to be avoided, but a biblical event to be
welcomed. “No flag alien to the sources of the Mississippi,” cried Grow
from the House floor, “will ever float permanently over its mouth till
its waters are crimsoned in human gore; and no one foot of American
soil can ever be wrenched from the jurisdiction of the Constitution of
the United States until it is baptized in fire and blood.” Grow, who
would briefly serve as speaker, and Stevens, who chaired the Ways and
Means Committee, ran the House with an iron fist, hastening the Civil
War and abetting its prosecution. Even the North’s victory did little
to slacken the zeal of Stevens, which would animate Reconstruction and
culminate in the failed impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in

But, by 1869, Stevens was dead and the American people had wearied
of Reconstruction, which, by 1877, was officially over. The Gilded Age
awaited, and politics temporarily abandoned its central role in the
drama of American history. This new era would be a time when the needs
of commerce both superceded and corrupted the political process. The
greatest days of the House were over. But what days they had been:
three generations of leaders–men like James Madison, Webster, Clay,
Randolph, Abraham Lincoln, James K. Polk, and Stevens–had made good
on the Founders’ great hopes for the House of Representatives.

If the Gilded Age did not privilege political activity, it did bring
about institutional changes in the House of great, if unfortunate,
significance. While congressional committees and the basics of the
interplay between the executive and the Congress were established by
the time of Reconstruction, the Gilded Age witnessed an unprecedented
consolidation of political power that largely reflected the era’s
consolidation of financial power. Committee chairmen, who rose to
prominence not so much through skill as longevity, worked with the
speaker to tightly control House activity, while the power of the
rank-and-file diminished as their leaders came to demand party-line
voting. As Remini notes, “For an individual member, this consolidation
of control meant that if he did not occupy a seat on one of the leading
committees, he had little, if any, opportunity to accomplish anything …
and the member of the House who is unfortunate enough to belong to the
minority has no show whatever in legislation. He is absolutely cut off
from everything but his vote, and that counts for nothing in final
results.” This consolidation, coupled with the public’s disinterest in
politics, in turn strengthened the power of the emerging monopolies and
trusts, which for the first time deployed lobbyists (many of whom were
former congressmen) to do their bidding.

Despite occasional institutional innovation, such as Speaker Thomas
Reed’s 1897 creation of the party “whip” position to marshal votes, the
House during the Gilded Age and the early Progressive era was, as one
prominent congressman characterized it, “a homeopathic dose of
nothingness,” an ineffective body that served mainly to prop up special
interests and preserve the status quo. Reed and, later, Joe Cannon
brutally used the powers of the speaker to enforce discipline. The
cigar-chewing Cannon was, in addition to serving as speaker, chairman
of the Rules Committee, where he could bottle up disfavored
legislation. He was also happy to remove committee chairmen or to delay
committee appointments when necessary to enforce his will. All of this
power was wedded to a temperament fiercely opposed to change of any
sort; contemporaries of Cannon joked that, if God had proposed bringing
the world from chaos into civilization, the speaker would have voted

A band of reformers ousted Cannon in 1910, but it took another
half-century to devolve the power of the speaker in favor of House
procedure. The climactic confrontation in this long struggle for
procedural supremacy was civil rights. Consider Howard Smith, as
refined in manners as crude in sensibility, who was the chairman of the
Rules Committee during the 1950s. As men like Richard Bolling, the
great if ultimately frustrated congressman from Missouri, pushed for
progressive civil rights legislation, Smith worked aggressively to
ensure that the Rules Committee was its purgatory, if not burial
ground. Not only did Smith, a Democrat from North Carolina, forge
alliances with committee Republicans, but he was not opposed to simply
disappearing for a few days (claiming, for example, that his barn had
burned down) to prevent the Rules Committee from meeting. But the
momentum for civil rights was too powerful and, in 1961, a bipartisan
coalition reorganized the committee, enlarging it by three progressive
members and checking the authority of its chairman. Remini details well
this long, heroic, but underappreciated front in the struggle for civil
rights, bringing to light men like Carl Vinson, who, though a
Southerner himself, supported the end of Smith’s control. In fact,
nearly 50 Southern Democrats supported the reorganization; in so doing,
they in no small way ushered in civil rights legislation that most of
their constituents opposed, and which in many cases they themselves
felt compelled to vote against.

With procedural obstacles removed, a new era of reform opened up
during the ’60s. Within a few years, voting rights, aid to education,
Medicare and Medicaid, and a host of other landmark measures passed
into law. But, partly as a result, the House became not so much an
independent source of legislation as the enabler of an increasingly
ambitious executive branch. In the achievements of the New Frontier and
Great Society, no figure emerged to rival Clay or Sam Rayburn, men who
crafted legislation with that rare combination of wisdom and
opportunism. Indeed, it is tempting to see the significance of the
House in the late ’60s and early ’70s through the prism of
opportunities lost. In 1969, the House passed a constitutional
amendment by a vote of 338 to 70 that would have abolished the
Electoral College; the Senate refused to take up the measure. In 1971,
“in an effort”–to use Congressman John Anderson’s words–”to bring this
television monster under control,” the House overwhelmingly passed
legislation limiting the amount of money candidates could donate to
their own campaigns for office; the courts struck it down. At the risk
of indulging the counterfactual, how much better would our country
be–and how different–if both laws had been given force?

Echoing the Gilded Age, the last 30 years in the House have been
marked more by continued scandal and corruption than by legislative
achievement. From Watergate, Abscam, and Iran-Contra to the House Post
Office and the impeachment of President Clinton, investigations by and
of the House have been ceaseless. In fact, Remini’s recounting of
recent events almost entirely omits a discussion of the actual work of
Congress. By my count, fewer than 20 pieces of legislation merit
mention in the last hundred pages of The House. And Remini’s
omission is not an oversight: the House’s role in recent legislation
has truly been insignificant. Members, no longer bound by party
structures, have become self-styled political entrepreneurs, most adept
at fundraising, which has sadly become the essential measure of any
politician. The public, rendered numb and mute by the influence of big
money, expects little from its elected officials, and the pervasive
cynicism of America’s citizenry has become a self-validating
justification for lowered expectations. Work weeks, which had once been
noted for their harshness, are lax. Today, the unspoken truth is that,
for a member in a safe district, being in Congress is one of the
easiest jobs imaginable: free meals, discounted or free tickets to
events, a two-day work week that never starts before noon, and more
than $160,000 per year.

The House hits every target it aims for. As a general history
of the United States, the work is a fine introduction. Indeed, the
filtering of U.S. history through one part of the legislative branch
provides a new and welcome perspective on long-known events. Especially
useful is the emphasis on the continual debate over the House rules,
which seem to outsiders and many congressmen as practically immutable.

Befitting a biographer of Remini’s skill and accomplishment, The House also
succeeds as a vivid group portrait of some of the more than 10,000 men
and women who have served in the House of Representatives. A young
congressman from Illinois named Donald Rumsfeld is seen engineering the
rise of his colleague Gerald Ford. Wilbur Mills receives a generous
treatment, as does Jeannette Rankin, the idiosyncratic Montana
legislator who was the first female member of the House and who voted
against U.S. entry into both World War I and World War II. Less known,
but well-noted, is Leonor Sullivan, the chair of the Merchant Marine
and Fisheries Committee, who tenaciously insisted on being referred to
as “Chairman” and rebuked anyone foolish enough to offer a salutation
of “Chairwoman” or “Chairperson.” And, if only to remind us of how far
we as a nation have come in the last few decades, Remini details how,
in 1974, Pat Schroeder, the outspoken Congresswoman from Colorado, was
required to share a chair with Ron Dellums, the equally outspoken black
Congressman from California, in Armed Services Committee hearings,
because F. Edward Hébert, the Louisianan who chaired the committee,
reasoned that women and blacks were worth only one-half of a “regular”

Famous and obscure, all are given their due, and no detail about the
House, no gunfight, stabbing, or beating–of which there are
surprisingly many–is left unmentioned. Nor does Remini overlook the
parliamentarians and clerks who ran the House during the day and who,
at night, often procured liquor for prodigious drinkers like Speakers
Nicholas Longworth and “Cactus” Jack Garner. Nor does he ignore the
Capitol itself–The House is one of the best summary sources
on its development and architecture. The architects and craftsmen who
transformed it from a ramshackle structure known as the “Oven” into the
neoclassical grandeur of today receive only slightly less attention
than elected officials.

But for all of its excellence, what is missing from The House
is a discussion of the electioneering activity required to gain
admittance to the chamber, a notable oversight given that the electoral
side of politics is particularly relevant for understanding recent
events in the House. Not that long ago, campaigning was incidental to
public service, and raising money was an insignificant aspect of
political life. In Remini’s biographies of Clay and Webster, which both
aspire to definitiveness, scant attention is given to the men’s
campaigns for the House, and few pages are devoted to the pursuit of
campaign contributions. Even in a career as recent as Sam Rayburn’s,
fundraising appeared to be a necessary yet subordinate task. But what
was once secondary has risen to incontestable primacy, and no story of
the contemporary House is complete without a recognition that the real
action in politics–perhaps for the first time in American history–takes
place outside the four walls of the Capitol. To see the authentic House
today, you must go to the intersection of money, interest groups, and
politicians desperate to reach a television-addicted electorate.
Dominance of this crossroads is, as former Majority Leader Tom DeLay
has proved, both necessary and sufficient to rule the House floor with
an authority that would have left “Uncle” Joe Cannon slack-jawed with
admiration. Remini’s focus elsewhere renders unexamined this most
important aspect of a twenty-first-century representative’s life.

Congress stands in need of reform. This reform must be aware of the
technological changes that have already altered the way elections are
fought but that have yet to be reflected in the way Congress does
business. Remini saliently notes that the real impact of CSPAN’s
broadcast of House proceedings is not grandstanding (of which there’s
always been plenty), but the ability of congressmen to follow debate
from the comfortable privacy of their offices. If members are watching
debate on television–and most aren’t even bothering with this–why
shouldn’t they simply stay in their districts, safe from the predations
of lobbyists? A representative wouldn’t miss a thing. Committee
hearings are a well-known joke that benefit neither witnesses nor
representatives. Most meetings on Capitol Hill are either with
lobbyists or with constituents who have flown to Washington. By staying
at home, they would avoid the former and make life easier on the worthy
latter. All votes could be held, not at 2 a.m. as now, but in a group,
perhaps at videocast town hall meeting every Wednesday night. With the
reduced overhead costs of offices in Washington, we could even increase
membership in the House, which has been frozen at 435 since the
presidency of Woodrow Wilson, even as the country has almost tripled in
size. Coupled with meaningful campaign finance reform, this would
revolutionize the House of Representatives. Having served in the
institution, I can assure you that this change would be both workable
and salutary. And it would at least be a good start. I’d like to think
Henry Clay, who was always a visionary, would agree.

Read more about CongressHistory

Brad Carson is the director of the National Energy Policy Institute at the University of Tulsa. He is a former Democratic Congressman from Oklahoma.

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