House Rules

Speaker Joe Cannon

Speaker Joe Cannon left no doubt about who was in charge of the House of Representatives

One of the most powerful political offices in the world is Speaker of the US House of Representatives.  Elected by the Representatives, this senior member of the majority party has almost limitless authority to control the business of this legislative body. No one understood or exercised this power better than Joe Cannon.

Cannon, a Republican from Danville, Illinois, served as Speaker from 1903 to 1911. Fiercely and unabashedly partisan, Cannon used his knowledge of and ability to influence House rules of procedure to maximum advantage. 

During the vote on the Philippine Railroad Bill, a measure advocated by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, Cannon called for a voice vote. Republicans, who happened to be few in attendance at that particular moment, responded with a few scattered “aye” votes. When it was time to hear from those opposed to the bill, Democrats responded with a thunderous “No!”  Cannon declared the vote by saying, “The ‘Noes’ make the most noise, but the ‘Ayes’ have it.”

Democrats protested, calling for a roll-call vote, but that allowed sufficient time to round up the absent Republican members, who arrived in time to cast their votes in favor of the bill, which passed by a narrow majority.

On another occasion, noticing that many of the Republicans were away from the chamber, Democrats seized the opportunity to call for a vote on a bill that would not pass if more Republicans had been present.

Seeing what was going on, Cannon sent messengers throughout the city to round up the absent Republicans. The Democrat leadership, employing every parliamentary tactic at their disposal, pushed for an immediate vote. With no other option available to further delay the proceedings and yet still lacking sufficient votes to prevent the measure, Cannon called for a roll-call to determine who was present and whether they had a quorum to conduct business. Still lacking the votes, he called for a second one. When he saw he was still a few votes shy, Cannon ordered an unprecedented third roll-call.

A dozen enraged Democrats sprang to their feet. “Why does the Chair call the roll a third time?” they demanded. Without hesitation, Cannon replied, “The Chair will inform the gentlemen that the Chair is hoping a few more Republicans will come in.”

On another occasion, a motion was made by a Democrat where there was no possibility the measure would be adopted. When the voice vote defeated the motion, there was a call for a rising vote. Some five or six members rose in the affirmative and then half the House stood in the negative.

Cannon began to count. “One, two, three, four — oh, hell! A hundred.” Thus the vote was recorded.

When a constituent asked the Speaker to provide him with a printed copy of all House rules and procedures. Cannon responded by sending him something that left no doubt about the ultimate authority in the House: a picture of Speaker Joseph G. Cannon.


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