The evolving role of the Senate parliamentarian

The Senate’s parliamentarian is an influential figure in present-day Washington. In 2016, former Speaker, Paul Ryan, R-Wis., reportedly recommended to Republicans that they closely follow the position’s current occupant, Elizabeth MacDonough, for clues as to how House-passed legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare would fare in the Senate. Ryan’s recommendation turned out to be a good one. Republicans eventually removed several provisions from the House-passed bill because MacDonough decided that they violated some of the Senate’s rules and practices. She also reportedly thwarted Republican efforts to give states the authority to roll back insurance regulations mandated by Obamacare. More recently, the parliamentarian limited what kind of amendments senators can offer to resolutions to terminate a presidential emergency declaration under the National Emergencies Act of 1976.

Anecdotes like these suggest that the Senate could not function without a parliamentarian. But for 146 years, senators interpreted the institution’s rules and practices without a single authoritative voice to do so on their behalf. Senators only created the position 84 years ago, when they named Charles L. Watkins the first official parliamentarian on July 1, 1935. During the mid-1930s, the increase in New Deal legislation proposed by the Roosevelt administration made the legislative process more confusing. Senators also began to spend less time in the chamber, resulting in a decline in their familiarity with the Senate’s rules.

Over the last eight decades, the parliamentarian gradually became central to ensuring the orderly flow of legislation on the Senate floor. One former parliamentarian, Floyd M. Riddick, observed that the position’s primary duty is to advise the Senate’s presiding officer “on every procedure that he must rule on or everything he should say even.” When the presiding officer is required to respond to a parliamentary inquiry or make a ruling on a point of order, it is the parliamentarian who whispers the appropriate procedure to the senator sitting in the chair. Today, a visitor observing the Senate from its galleries will see the parliamentarian and presiding officer interacting in precisely the same manner as described by Riddick. Then, as now, the parliamentarian “tries to keep the Chair posted on each step of the procedure before it arrives, if he can stay ahead; or if it’s too complex and he can’t be ahead, sometimes he has to whisper one sentence at a time to be sure that the Chair states what the procedure is.”

The relationship is underscored by the customary practice of rotating the members serving as the presiding officer. Junior senators in the majority party are called upon to preside most often. They rely on the parliamentarian for the detailed knowledge of the Senate’s rules and practices that is necessary to rule on any points of order that their colleagues may raise in a legislative debate. Speaking on the occasion of the retirement of Murray Zweben, who stepped down as parliamentarian in 1980, Senator Bill Bradley, D-N.J.,  recollected, “As a freshmen senator who has filled a substantial number of hours in the last two years presiding over this body, Murray has offered special help and guidance.” Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., speaking on the same occasion, remarked that his service presiding over the Senate as a freshman would have been “impossible without the expertise, dedication, brilliance, and knowledge of our parliamentarian Murray Zweben.”

Dependence on the parliamentarian is not limited to the senator serving as presiding officer. Rank-and-file senators and staff also rely heavily on the parliamentarian when crafting legislative proposals and planning parliamentary maneuvers on the floor. Staff frequently visit the parliamentarian’s office in the Senate wing of the Capitol to have an amendment (or parliamentary procedure) blessed unofficially in advance of their senator taking action on the floor. Their doing so benefits both staff and the parliamentarian. The parliamentarian is given advance notice of potential questions with which they may be confronted on the Senate floor. Such notice allows the parliamentarian to prepare for any relevant points of order that may arise by researching their procedural history. In general, rank-and-file senators and their staff receive expert advice on how to execute their efforts in compliance with the Senate’s rules and practices.

Senators’ increased dependence on the parliamentarian, whether or not they are presiding over the chamber, suggests an erosion of procedural knowledge in the Senate. Today, senators members spend less time on the floor, observing the legislative process in action. During the limited time in which senators are in Washington, their schedules are dominated instead by committee hearings, constituent meetings, and fundraisers. More than in the past, senators return to their states at the first possible chance to spend time with families that remain behind or to engage in a permanent campaign to win reelection. Given all of this, senators have fewer incentives and less time to develop the procedural knowledge necessary to participate effectively in the legislative process. As Riddick concluded, “It was just natural that they had to begin to depend on somebody to do the procedural aspects for them, leaving to themselves the substantive matters to be put into legislation.”

Filed Under:
Topics: Legislative Procedure