dkSez : : : : : : Don Kahle's blog

Quips, queries, and querulous quibbles from the quirky mind of Don Kahle

dkSez : : : : : : Don Kahle's blog random header image

How the other filibuster ended

April 11th, 2021 by dk

Much ink has been spilled over the last few months about whether Democrats might bring to an end the Senate’s filibuster tradition. Keep in mind that it is nothing more than a tradition. Filibusters are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. 

It’s true that our founding fathers wanted to avoid the tyranny of the majority, but they rested in the belief that competing ambitions and general bonhomie would suffice. They never dreamed that a minority of lawmakers would consider halting all government business and declaring themselves satisfied.

What might happen if the majority gains the power to assert its will without active participation from the minority? Recall George Santayana’s warning, slightly revised: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to reading about it in one of Kahle’s columns.”

In the decades after the Civil War, the House of Representatives had an obstruction strategy employed by the minority that will seem all too familiar to Oregonians. They called it a filibuster, and it was a Republican who put a stop to it.

The practice at the time was to begin each session with a courtesy measure that doubled as a roll call. Unfortunately, the precursor to Microsoft Excel used since the first Congress had only two input options — yes or no. There was no way to vote “present.” Those who refused to answer were effectively marked absent, even if they were standing beside the clerk.

Once tallied, if the official ledger showed too few recorded responses to constitute a quorum, business was adjourned. It was no different from how Oregon legislators in the minority have obstructed lawmaking in Salem several times over the past few years. No different except that olden lawmakers marked themselves absent but didn’t bother staying away.

House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed, a Republican from Portland, Maine, ended the practice in January, 1890. Reed was a master parliamentarian, similar to Mitch McConnell today. When his party was in the minority, he led the obstruction by refusing to have his presence recorded.

When Republicans surged into the majority and he became Speaker, he knew just what to do. Reed instructed the House clerk to count and record whoever was present. This must have involved inputting calligraphied comments in the spreadsheet cell notes until quill feathers jammed the keyboard.

As recounted by David Litt in The Atlantic last month, Kentucky’s James McCreary protested, “I deny your right, Mr. Speaker, to count me as present.” Reed’s response: “The Chair is making a statement of fact that the gentleman is present. Does he deny it?”

Democrats then tried to hide under their desks or leave the chamber. Three days of parliamentary maneuvering ensued. Tactics included locking the chamber doors from the outside (this is true) and probably (just guessing here) jamming cell phone reception and suspending members’ UberEats delivery accounts. The House of Representatives lost its filibuster 131 years ago and no one remembers they ever had one.

Will legislative leaders in Salem lock the chamber doors to keep the minority present, ending their de facto filibuster? Probably not, but it wouldn’t be the first time.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

Tags: No Comments

Leave A Comment

Are you human? *

0 responses so far ↓

  • There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.