Counting a Quorum

William Jennings Bryan, three time Presidential candidate

William Jennings Bryan

Holy, Holy, Holy
Delivered in Congress on April 17, 1894, in opposing the adoption of a rule which permitted the counting of a quorum.

MR. SPEAKER: I am obliged to the gentleman from Maine for this courtesy. The question upon which we are called to act is one of a great deal more importance than some members seem to think, and the objection which is made to the rule by some of us, who have not been able to favor it, is based upon reasons far more weighty than gentlemen have assumed.

The constitution of the State of Nebraska, which I have the honor in part to represent, contains this provision:

“No bill shall be passed unless by assent of a majority of all the members elected to each house of the Legislature, and the question upon the final passage shall be taken immediately upon its last reading, and the yeas and nays shall be entered upon the journal.”

The constitutions of a majority of the States of the Union, among them the States of New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and I might name them all if time permitted, provide the same, the object being to prevent less than one-half of all the members elected to the Legislature from passing laws. It is only by the concurrence of a majority of the members that we can know that the majority of the people desire the law. The Constitution of the United States does not contain a similar provision; and there is no question, since the decision of the Supreme Court, that it is within the power of this House to declare by rule in what manner a quorum may be ascertained. It can be done in the manner provided in this rule, or it can be done by the call of the yeas and nays, as it has been done for a hundred years. Now, the question with me is this: which is the safer plan? According to the rule which has been in vogue a hundred years, the minority has the safeguard which is expressly secured in the constitutions of a majority of the States; according to the old rule the minority, by refusing to vote, can compel the concurrence of a majority before a law is passed.

Now, I believe that is a wise provision. I do not see why it is wiser in a State than in Congress; I do not know why it is necessary that the members of the Legislature in my State, or in New York, should be compelled to vote yea or nay when a bill shall pass, and that a majority shall concur, unless the same reasons apply in this body.

We are asked to change this rule, which has been in operation since the beginning of the Government, and adopt a new rule; a rule not intended to enable the majority to rule, but to enable less than one-half of the members of Congress to pass laws for this country. I believe that the innovation is a dangerous one. There is far more safety in giving to the minority the power to delay legislation until a majority have expressed themselves in favor of a law. How can you tell that the people of the United States desire a particular law except by the voice of their representatives; and how can we tell that their representatives believe the bill should become a law until they have expressed themselves by vote in favor of the proposition? The naked question brought before us by this rule is: “Shall we so make our rules that the minority of the people of the United States may make the laws, or shall we retain the rule which enables us to compel the concurrence of a majority when it seems of sufficient importance?”

Of course the right to remain silent can be used to filibuster, but we have a rule which shuts off filibustering when a majority desires to vote. We have it in the power of the House—and I think it is a wise provision—to put an end to dilatory motions and to bring the House to a vote when the majority so desires, but a rule to count a quorum is not designed to facilitate the government of a majority, but to enable the representatives of a minority of the people to do business and make laws.

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