Many Americans have probably never heard of the Senate parliamentarian. But this person is about to play an outsized role in the debate over COVID-19 relief. The looming $1.9 trillion COVID bill pushed by President Biden and congressional Democrats through a process called budget reconciliation will require rulings from the parliamentarian about whether certain policies are allowed under Senate rules.
Here are five facts about the parliamentarian:
- The office of the parliamentarian has its roots in Article I, Section 5, of the Constitution, which says that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.”
Thomas Jefferson played a key role in compiling the operational rules of the House and the Senate when he published his Manual of Parliamentary Practice in 1801. But it would be another century before either body had a formal parliamentarian. Throughout the 19th century, the Senate’s presiding officer, the vice president, would rely on Jefferson’s Manual to determine the correct parliamentary procedure. The House’s rules changed significantly during the 19th century as the number of members grew rapidly. Interpretations of House rules were made by the speaker. The speaker often used the rules interpretations to give the majority party more power, most notably in the case of Speaker Thomas Reed, who in 1890 interpreted the rules to give the majority party more power over the floor agenda and debate.
- Offices of the parliamentarian were created in the House in 1927 and in the Senate in 1935.
Both parliamentarians have a staff who study the history of each chamber, including volumes of information about precedents and rules. The parliamentarian or another staff member is always present on the floor of both chambers, sitting close to the presiding officer to advise them on any procedural matters.
Lewis Deschler served from 1927 to 1975 as the first House parliamentarian, and there have only been five House parliamentarians since then.
Charles Watkins had started in the role unofficially in 1923, before heading up the formal office when it was created in 1935. He retired as parliamentarian in 1964, at the age of 85. Only five people have held his position since.
- The parliamentarian answers questions from the presiding officer about the wording of motions, and about precedents related to motions or actions.
The Parliamentarian also offers advice about interpreting standing rules about legislation. The presiding officer of the Senate, which is either the vice president, the Senate president pro tempore, or his/her designee, usually accepts interpretations issued by the parliamentarian, but the interpretations are not binding on their own.
While the parliamentarian plays an important role in interpreting Senate procedure, on rare occasions, the presiding officer overrules the Parliamentarian because they disagree with the advice. The most prominent example happened in 1975 when Vice President Nelson Rockefeller overruled the parliamentarian regarding a debate over the filibuster.
Senators or representatives can also work with the parliamentarian before introducing a bill or while working in committees to understand what rules would apply. According to a Congressional Research Service report, “The Parliamentarians and their assistants/deputies make their authoritative knowledge available to all Members on the floor during plenary sessions and from their offices at other times.”
- The current parliamentarian is Elizabeth MacDonough, who has held the office since 2012, and was appointed by then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
MacDonough began working in the parliamentarian’s office in 1999 before becoming the parliamentarian in 2012. During her time as the parliamentarian, she has made numerous consequential rulings. She previously ruled against Senate Republicans’ effort to repeal elements of the Affordable Care Act through budget reconciliation, as well as their inclusion of the Johnson Amendment repeal, which would have allowed churches to financially support political candidates, in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that was also passed via reconciliation. The Parliamentarian serves at the pleasure of the majority, meaning they can be fired at will, as Parliamentarian Robert Dove was in 2001 after outcry over some of his rulings.
- The budget reconciliation process is supposed to only include provisions that, according to the Congressional Research Service “would change laws … related to direct spending, revenue, or the debt limit.”
The Senate parliamentarian may rule on which provisions meet this standard for the upcoming COVID-19 relief bill.
The budget reconciliation process allows the Senate to pass a bill with a simple majority, rather than needing 60 votes to overcome the filibuster. However, some policies do not qualify to be included under budget reconciliation. The rule used to determine a policy’s eligibility is the Byrd rule—named after former Sen. Robert Byrd–which allows senators to object to certain provisions for being outside the bill’s scope or not adjusting federal spending or income. The Byrd rule is not self-enforcing, so senators must raise a point of order under the Byrd rule for the parliamentarian to make a ruling. Once a senator raises an objection, the parliamentarian issues a ruling as to whether the provision is allowable under reconciliation. This ruling can be overruled by a 3/5 majority, or 60 senators, but can also be disregarded by the presiding officer.