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Tackling the US prison system The US prison system has long been an issue of concern for many Americans. Despite the US having only 5% of the world’s population, it is home to 25% of the world’s prisoners. The US prison population has grown exponentially in recent years and this has been largely attributed to the ‘War on Drugs’, which has seen the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. This has resulted in a large number of non-violent offenders being incarcerated for lengthy periods of time. There have been a number of initiatives to address this issue, such as the bipartisan First Step Act which was signed into law in 2018. The Act seeks to reduce the number of federal prisoners, reform sentencing guidelines and expand rehabilitation programs. There is also growing support for the decriminalization of certain drugs such as marijuana. These measures are a step in the right direction, however much more needs to be done to reform the US prison system.

An Empire or a Gavel: Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed’s Opposition to the Spanish-American War | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives

In late March 1898, Republican Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine found himself in an unfamiliar position. Known as “Czar Reed” for his iron-fisted control over the legislative process, Reed now struggled to maintain the direction of the House’s agenda as war loomed on the horizon.For months, lawmakers on Capitol Hill had worried as Spain suppressed a war for independence in Cuba, which Madrid controlled as a territory. By the spring, many in Congress sought to confront the European monarchy over its actions in the Caribbean. But Reed fiercely opposed conflict with Spain, and generally resisted America’s larger imperial ambitions overseas. He had thus far skillfully prevented votes that would have drawn the United States closer to war. As events unfolded, however, and the clamor for congressional action grew louder, Reed—despite his parliamentary prowess and the vast powers he had accumulated in the Speaker’s Office—could no longer prevent the issue from reaching the floor for debate.A loyal Republican and the leader of his party in Congress, Reed felt he had certain obligations to adhere to party orthodoxy, even in the rare event that he disagreed with it. As the drumbeat for war grew louder in the GOP, Reed confronted an issue that pitted his party loyalty against his personal convictions and his duties as Speaker of the House.American InterestsThe island nation of Cuba, situated about 100 miles from Key West, Florida, had long held the interest of Americans. In 1895, Cuban rebels seeking independence from Spain initiated an insurrection against the ruling empire.From the start of the conflict, some Members of Congress had called on the United States to recognize and support the Cuban revolutionaries. Many of their constituents felt similarly and supported going to war with Spain for several reasons, including humanitarian concern for Cubans, economic self-interest, and a growing imperial desire for overseas territorial expansion. Support for Cuban independence only grew louder as the American press published accounts, often exaggerated, of Spanish atrocities. As the war continued, Americans with economic interests in Cuba, especially the island’s vast sugar cane fields, joined the chorus calling on the United States to intervene.On Capitol Hill, Speaker Reed steadfastly opposed American intervention, but he usually kept his opinions to himself. Reed rarely spoke during debate in the House, and only occasionally discussed his beliefs about the conflict elsewhere. In mid-March 1898, newspapers quoted an associate close to Reed who claimed that the Speaker considered war “a relic of barbarism” and that the United States should only fight for “the protection of our national honor.” Reed did not consider Spain’s treatment of Cubans to be a threat to the United States. Reed also opposed imperial expansion because he shared the racist beliefs of the time that the non-White populations of places like Cuba and the Philippines, which Spain also controlled, could not be incorporated into the United States.Majority RuleFor Reed, the irony of finding himself in the minority on these issues was inescapable.Reed believed majority rule was essential to American governance, and he, more than anyone, ensured that the majority controlled the House. In the decades before Reed became Speaker, the House minority often took advantage of dilatory tactics made possible by House Rules to derail the majority’s agenda. When Reed became Speaker in the 51st Congress (1889–1891), House Republicans passed a series of rule reforms that became known as the Reed Rules which empowered the majority and increased the influence of the Speaker and committee chairs.Across three non-consecutive terms as Speaker, Reed had accrued immense power over the House’s legislative machinery. But Reed’s control ultimately rested on the consent of the majority—be it the majority party or a majority of lawmakers working as a bipartisan coalition. And when Reed’s policy preferences ran counter to the majority, his grip on the legislative calendar weakened.Amid the hue and cry of war, Reed sought parliamentary workarounds to avoid the issue. The 55th Congress (1897–1899) opened in March 1897 with a special session to address a separate issue concerning tariff rates. As Speaker, Reed controlled committee assignments in the House. To prevent debate on any legislation other than the tariff, especially Cuban independence, Reed assigned Members to just three committees: the Committees on Rules; Ways and Means; and Mileage. By limiting House debate to the tariff alone, Reed hoped to determine which Republicans would be faithful to his agenda—and thus who would be in the running for plum committee seats later when, or if, a war vote approached. Secondly, when a Member, invariably a Democrat, attempted to file a pro-Cuban resolution, Reed could explain that proper order required the bill to be referred to the Foreign Affairs Committee, which at the time was not organized.Reed’s strategy relied on the support of able party lieutenants and a loyal Republican caucus. On Wednesday July 7, 1897, for example, Democrat Benton McMillin of Tennessee inquired if bills could be passed under a suspension of regular order because it was technically a continuation of the previous Monday’s legislative day. When Reed responded in the affirmative, McMillin immediately made a motion to suspend the rules and pass a Senate resolution to give Cuban revolutionaries access to more resources. As one reporter recalled, “across Mr. Reed’s moon-like face there spread a wave of embarrassment” before he quickly called on fellow Maine Republican and Ways and Means chair Nelson Dingley Jr. who made a motion to adjourn and end debate.After the MaineReed’s efforts to prevent war with Spain became exceedingly difficult after an explosion in February 1898 sunk the U.S.S. Maine just off the coast of Havana, Cuba, killing 268 American sailors. As calls for intervention increased throughout the country, Congress approved a $50 million appropriation for national defense at the behest of the President in early March. Reed did not attempt to prevent the passage of the popular bill, but as the spring season progressed, Reed continued to find himself at odds with many in his party.On March 28, the House Clerk read a message from President William McKinley summarizing the U.S. Navy’s investigation that found that although an underwater mine had destroyed the Maine there was not enough evidence to determine if Spain was responsible. The report and the President’s unwillingness to explicitly confront the Spanish crown angered Members of Congress of both parties.The following day, 56 Republicans, frustrated with McKinley’s and Reed’s approach to the conflict, expressed support for a Democratic resolution calling on the United States to recognize Cuban independence. “We have enough pledges to guarantee the overruling of any chairman the Speaker may select. We are sick and tired of the President’s course. It is no longer tolerable,” explained Republican Jacob Henry Bromwell of Ohio. A Missouri Republican went so far as to threaten Reed’s gavel and claimed that the coalition of Republicans and Democrats had the votes to “vacate the chair, if need be, and put even an outsider in it” as a new Speaker.Reed advised McKinley that he had to provide Congress with concrete steps to quickly respond to the situation in Cuba or else Congress was likely to take matters into its own hands and declare war. As a result, McKinley met with members of the pro-Cuban faction and asked for a few more days to continue negotiations with Spain.Reed Against the MajorityOn March 30, visitors packed the galleries in the House Chamber on the chance that Congress would vote for war. After Speaker Reed gaveled the House into session, Democratic Leader Joseph Weldon Bailey of Texas offered a privileged motion for a resolution that recognized Cuba as a “free and independent state.” Immediately anti-war Maine Representative Charles Addison Boutelle moved to declare Bailey’s resolution out of order. As Bailey pleaded his case, Republican John Albert Tiffin Hull of Iowa, the chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs who also supported the Cuban cause, declared his opposition to Bailey’s resolution. Hull sent a clear message that the faction of House Republicans who backed Cuba’s independence would give McKinley a few more days to negotiate with Spain.Two weeks later, on April 11, McKinley asked Congress for the authority to take steps to end hostilities between Spain and Cuba—including the use of military measures if necessary—and to ensure a stable government on the island. But McKinley’s refusal to recognize Cuban independence split House Republicans. For many GOP lawmakers, an independent Cuba was at the heart of the conflict with Spain.Reed, always a loyal Republican, did not want Congress to directly counter the President during an election year. He remained opposed to U.S. intervention, but decided the best option was to influence the language of the resolution. On April 13, the Foreign Affairs Committee dutifully reported a bill that did not include mention of Cuban independence. On the floor, tempers flared during debate. One Member threw a large book at another Member, and a House Page was accidentally punched in the scuffle. After the Sergeant at Arms restored order, the House backed a war resolution that did not recognize an independent Cuban government.During negotiations with the Senate, Reed and his House allies stood firm with McKinley’s demand against recognizing Cuban independence. In the early morning hours of April 19, 1898, following an all-night session, the House and Senate passed a carefully worded joint resolution to appease a majority of both chambers. The resolution stated that the Cubans “are and of right ought to be free and independent” and that Spain had to “relinquish its authority and government” in Cuba. It also directed McKinley to use military force to achieve such aims and promised that the United States would not “exercise sovereignty” over the island.Only six Representatives voted against the resolution. As Speaker, Reed presided over the bill’s consideration and did not vote on the measure, as was customary at the time. But a few days later, Reed told Samuel Walker McCall of Massachusetts—one of the bill’s opponents and Reed’s future biographer—“I envy you the luxury of your vote. I was where I could not do it.” On April 25, the United States officially declared war on Spain.The war lasted ten weeks. The United States defeated Spain in Cuba and the Philippines (a Spanish colony that the United States coveted), and hostilities ended in August 1898. The two nations signed a peace treaty on December 10, 1898. As a result of the war, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico became American colonies and Cuba became an American protectorate until 1902.Reed won election to an eleventh term in the House in November 1898 and was certain to be Speaker for a fourth Congress. Instead on April 19, 1899, just over a month after the momentous 55th Congress ended, Reed announced his resignation from the House to work at a New York City law firm. Reed was intentionally vague about why he retired, but his most recent biographer suggested the former Speaker desired to make more money in the private sector and that he was too at odds with the imperial expansionist policies of his beloved Republican Party.Reed had long believed that the majority must govern. But on this important issue, he was squarely in the opposition. “Had I stayed,” Reed told a friend, “I must have been as Speaker always in a false position aiding and organizing things in which I did not believe or using power against those who gave it to me.”Sources: Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 1st sess. (7 July 1897): 2449; Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 2nd sess. (28 March 1898): 3285–3286; Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 2nd session (30 March 1898): 3379–3382; Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 2nd sess. (11 April 1898): 3704–3707; Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 2nd sess. (13 April 1898): 3810–3821; Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 2nd sess. (18 April 1898): 4062–4064; Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “A Chair Made Illustrious”: A Concise History of the U.S. House Speakership; Boston Daily Globe; 30 March 1898; Century Magazine, March 1889; Chicago Daily Tribune, 14 March 1898, 14 April 1898; Illustrated American, 4 December 1897; Los Angeles Times, 30 March 1898; Louisville Courier-Journal; 10 July 1897, 19 April 1898; Washington Evening Times, 30 March 1898; Washington Post, 28 May 1897; Robert L. Beisner, Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898–1900 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968); Lewis Gould, The Spanish-American War and President McKinley (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1982); Robert J. Klotz, Thomas Brackett Reed: The Gilded Age Speaker Who Made the Rules for American Politics (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press: 2022); Samuel W. McCall, The Life of Thomas Brackett Reed (New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914); James l. Offner, “McKinley and the Spanish-American War,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 34, no. 1 (March 2004); William A. Robinson, Thomas B. Reed: Parliamentarian (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1930).