The Senate Parliamentarian, Explained


On September 19, Democrats’ plans to offer undocumented immigrants a legal pathway to permanent residency was torpedoed when the Senate Parliamentarian ruled against including immigration reform in their $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package.   As Democrats attempt to advance key priorities via budget reconciliation, the role of the Senate Parliamentarian has garnered much attention.

Background: Democrats have long been seeking a way to offer permanent residency to Dreamers, who are undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US at a young age and have lived most of their lives in America. Currently, many Dreamers do not have a clear path to gain legal permanent residence status, which would then allow them to pursue citizenship.

The role: The Senate parliamentarian interprets the Senate’s often complicated rules.  The position of the Senate Parliamentarian is strictly non-partisan, and individuals are traditionally appointed to the role from senior staff in the Parliamentarian office. There have only been six Senate Parliamentarians since the position was created in 1935.  Senate Parliamentarians have no defined term length and serve at the pleasure of the Majority Leader.  The current Parliamentarian is Elizabeth MacDonough, who was appointed by then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) as the first woman to hold the position in 2012.

Did you know?  The Senate Parliamentarian’s salary is $171,315 per year, as of 2019.

Some of the things the Senate Parliamentarian might do include:

  • Advising the Senate’s presiding officer, or Majority Leader, on the appropriate procedure, statements, and responses of the Senate.
  • Offering written guidance on procedural questions.
  • Recommending the referral of measures to relevant committees.
  • Maintaining and publishing procedural rules.

It’s not just the Senate: The House of Representatives has its own Parliamentarian, too, with a similar salary and responsibilities.  The current House Parliamentarian is Jason Smith (not to be confused with the Missouri Congressman), who was appointed in 2010.

Why the Senate parliamentarian is getting so much attention this year:  The Democratic majority is using the budget reconciliation process to accomplish their policy goals and bypass the need for Republican support. Therefore, enter the Parliamentarian, who decides what can and can’t be included in legislation passed under this process. The Parliamentarian uses the Byrd Rule to analyze legislation and makes a determination on whether a provision produces a change in spending or revenues and does not increase the deficit within a set period.

This isn’t the first time where the Parliamentarian says no to a Democrat policy: Back in March, top Senate Democrats were upset by the Parliamentarian’s decision to not include a minimum wage increase in the American Rescue Plan due to an “incidental” impact on the federal budget.

What Could Senate Democrats Do? The Senate Majority Leader does have the authority to fire the Senate Parliamentarian.  This last happened in 2001, when then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) fired then-Parliamentarian Robert Dover after he interpreted Senate rules in way that would have made it difficult to pass then-President George W. Bush’s tax cut proposal through budget reconciliation.

However, MacDonough’s job seems safe for now.  While Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has expressed disappointment with her recent rulings, he has yet to call for the Parliamentarian to be replaced.  Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) has similarly indicated he doesn’t think MacDonough should be dismissed.  Instead, Senate Democrats have expressed a willingness to advance immigration reform and other priorities that can’t be included in budget reconciliation through regular order, even if the chances of doing so are slim to none.

Senate Democrats could also overrule MacDonough’s ruling with the support of all 50 Senate Democrats and Vice President Harris, but this won’t be happening, either.  Both Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema  (D-AZ) have previously stated they won’t overrule the parliamentarian, while Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) have thrown cold water on the idea.

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