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Clark and Reed

Did you hear the one about the leaders of the House putting nation before vanity and personal gain? It happened.

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, February 24, 2010.

Today, Toyota tries to explain itself before Congressmen who fought to get the Japanese company to build in their districts and are up for re-election. That should be amusing. I'm still not convinced there is a huge problem, but the Obama administration has been on their case from the beginning. Contrast and compare to the Ford SUV and Goodrich tire fiasco of a decade ago.

Today, Dick Cheney has had his fifth heart attack and is resting comfortably.

But tomorrow, Barrack Obama continues his bipartisan attempt to get health care reform, of some sort, passed. He's having a televised gathering with big wigs from both parties. Nobody is optimistic.

Word is out that even without the 60 votes to stop a threatened Senate filibuster, the Democrats have ways to get the legislation passed with just 51 votes. It should be a tense assemblage. It may come down to Harry Reid's dexterity with parliamentary procedure, and because Reid is not Mr. Charisma, and because pressure will be brought to bear for every vote, it will be testy. If it works, the GOP and its current political lamprey, the Tea Party, will have a fit, which viewed in the cold light of history will be ironic. But history, based on fact, is not the strong point of the Tea Party, which deals in myth and falsehood when not serving slander and nonsense. It cannot be viewed, as it wishes, as a populist Think Tank That Votes, but as a Synapse Snap That Fizzles, as it seems to be.

Health care reform is a big reason Obama got elected, because he campaigned upon it heavily. Most polls still show it as a wish of the electorate, so working for it is not a rebellion but doing the work of the majority. Stemming the wishes of the majority has always been the work and sometimes the point of upper legislative bodies, like the House of Lords, and although it seems anti-democratic time has proven that this brake on progress has proven wise in the cold light of history, something not clear at the time.

Just over a century ago, the minority party in the House of Representatives could nullify the legislation of the majority by demanding a roll call vote to see if there was a legal quorum for business, and then not answering when their name was called. Speaker of the House Thomas Reed, a Republican from Maine, viewed this as a violation of the whole principle of democracy. So, as Speaker, after a roll call failed to produce a quorum, he announced from the Chair that there were Congressmen present and refusing to vote, and read their names into the record. One denied the right of the Speaker to count him as present. The Speaker announced him again as present and asked if the Congressman wished to deny it on record? Reed completed the count and announced that a legal quorum existed.

Tom Reed broke what was called the Silent Filibuster, the refuge of the bitter losers of the Civil War. The Democrats went, shall we say, ape. Like the GOP today, most were Southerners, and like the GOP today they were furious that democracy actually meant majority rule with minority rights protected. But the Speaker announced a new set of procedures for the House which was voted in called Reed's Rules, and its existence infuriated the Democrats. In a subsequent election, which the Democrats won, they discovered that the Republicans could thwart their legislation by the same means they had, and shame-faced re-introduced Reed's Rules. The former Speaker congratulated them and did not smirk.

Reed had long known that he who mastered legislative procedure and Robert's Rules of Order generally had all of his rights and most of everyone else's. He was strict and fair and acknowledged as such. When Reed later was trying to prevent his own party from turning the United States into an imperial power, he asked a Congressman to change committees on which Reed needed his vote. Nothing shocking about it except the Congressman was Champ Clark, eventually Speaker himself, and a Democrat who was normally Reed's fierce legislative opponent. But such was his regard for Reed and such was the shared disdain both men felt for the nation's direction, Clark stood with Reed and lost some personal power for the greater good. Imagine John Boehner doing that for Nancy Pelosi, or Pelosi doing that for Dennis Hastert.

That's not a feel good fable. It is true. It's speaks to the sort of legislative common sense and priority of nation that is sorely missing these days. Health care is the major drain on national finances, and it needs to be fixed for the good of the nation. Outside Barack Obama, who else is saying that? And who remembers Champ Clark and Tom Reed?

Well, we should.