Battles Among the Branches 1879-1881 - 1879
After the Civil War, military conflict turned into political conflict. The Constitution originally had considered a slave only three-fifths of a person when calculating a state's House seats. Now, however, former slaves counted as full citizens, enabling the South to balance the North's rapid population growth. After Reconstruction, Southern states accompanied their return to national politics with a campaign of terror against African-American voters. Democrats, the party favored by white Southerners, gained control of the House. Republicans held the presidency. Partisan rivalry flared.
Many Republicans tried to protect the rights of black voters. Southern Democrats blocked these efforts, repeatedly tacking onto bills an amendment preventing the federal government from getting involved. Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes would then veto the bill. After two years of stalemate, the House Democrats finally abandoned the tactic.
Seizing the Power to Act - 1910
"... a slow-moving giant hulk of a barge ... a form dressed completely in black, out of whose collar rose an enormous round, clean-shaven baby face." A ghost haunting the House? No, that's how a colleague described Representative Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine.
Reed revered the House, dismissing the Senate as "a place where good Representatives go when they die." During the 1880s, he complained about the inability of any House majority to act. But as Speaker, Reed foiled long-established delaying tactics by calmly ruling against members trying to stall the proceedings. Members feared Reed's quick, acid tongue in debate. His rulings once provoked a near riot on the floor, but his efforts made the Speaker once again the House's moving force and allowed the House to act.
"In my opinion there never has been a more perfectly equipped leader in any parliamentary body at any period."
— Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, recalling House Speaker Thomas Reed, 1910
Reining in the Speaker, 1910 - 1910
Many members of Congress believe that fewer laws are better. "The country don't need any legislation," was the way the colorful Joseph G. Cannon, Republican of Illinois, put it. Elected Speaker in 1903, "Uncle Joe" Cannon was among the more conservative House members. He wielded his power to stop President Theodore Roosevelt's crusade to regulate business and land use.
As conservative members retired or lost elections, however, Cannon's base of support gradually eroded. Conservative Republican control of the chamber became vulnerable to an alliance of Progressive Republicans and Democrats. In 1910, Nebraska's George W. Norris, one of the Progressive reformers, proposed new rules to curb the Speaker's power—igniting two days of nearly continuous debate. The Progressive–Democrat coalition prevailed, and many hailed Norris's resolution as a return to democracy in the House.
"The country don’t need any legislation."
— Speaker Joseph G. Cannon
Beginnings of Reform 1912-1913 - 1913
After the phenomenal industrial growth of the late 1800s, reformers feared that unregulated big business would use its influence for private gain at the expense of public good.
The House, responding to these concerns, established a special investigation panel, headed by Representative Arsene Pujo of Louisiana. It summoned captains of industry and top investment bankers (the so-called Money Trust), parading them before the committee and the press. The hearings exposed corrupt ties between banks and dozens of railroads, manufacturers, and utilities. These findings provided momentum for Congress to pass much-needed reforms, including the Federal Reserve Bank Act of 1913, which created a federally regulated banking system.