Politics The obscure, unelected Senate official whose rulings can help — or kill — Biden's agenda
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Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough raised the profile of her largely invisible role in February 2021 when sheto $15 per hour in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill ultimately . Democrats had aimed to . This crucial category consists of bills on taxes or spending – and MacDonough ruled the wage hike didn't meet that requirement.
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Progressive Democrats went through the roof., "I regard it as absurd that the parliamentarian, a Senate staffer elected by no one, can prevent a wage increase for 32 million workers."
But MacDonough was just carrying out her procedural duties to advise the Senate leaders about what the body's rules and precedents allow – and what they don't. And as the author of two books about Congress – "" and " " – I know that the parliamentarian's rulings can be key to passage of legislation.
A century ago, the Senate would informally assign a particular Senate "clerk" to specialize in advice on proper phrasing of rulings and motions.
The first, began serving in the official position in 1935 and continued until 1964. Such a higher-status position was necessitated by the trend toward increasing complexity and formality of Senate floor action. This trend was the Senate developing from its classic era as a "gentleman's club" to the . , and these required their own elaborate and formal procedures.
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Since then, the parliamentarian role has expanded as a result of the increasing complexity and formality of action on the Senate floor, and the apparent unwillingness of most senators to study for themselves the nuances of often-obscure procedural precedents.
For example, when a bill like theruns out of allocated time on the floor, the remaining amendments fly through with only two minutes each of consideration, and senators must defer to the parliamentarian to master the applicable procedure for each of those amendments.
The, since the provision did not influence spending or revenue, as each provision must under Senate budget rules.
The parliamentarian is a nonpartisan position; the office includes a chief parliamentarian and several assistant parliamentarians. When there is a vacancy,by the Senate majority leader from the assistant parliamentarians.
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In 2012, when she was appointed by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, MacDonough broke the glass ceiling and.
Despite being nonpartisan,. Historically, though, parliamentarians are regularly retained despite changes in Senate majority party. MacDonough served a Democratic Senate, then a Republican Senate, and now a Democratic Senate.
In an isolated occasion inthat didn't sit well with the GOP leadership. The post was then filled by Dove's , and the office continued to be nonpartisan.
When Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, called for MacDonough's firing over her ruling against reconciliation for the minimum wage,.
Power over legislation's prospects
As parliamentarian, MacDonough is charged with more than just ruling what can go into reconciliation bills.
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In advising the Senate presiding officer, the parliamentarian rules on countless procedural issues, from what provisions can go in an appropriation bill to what amendments are relevant enough to be offered to a bill when debate has already ended.
During Senate floor sessions, the parliamentarian or an assistant parliamentarian is present, sitting near the presiding officer and answering questions about procedure.
The parliamentarianthat handles the bill's main subject. Referral can greatly affect a bill's prospects because different committees may be more or less favorable to the bill's goals.
For example: A climate change bill may have one fate if drafted so that the parliamentarian sends it to the Commerce Committee. That could happen if the bill was written to emphasize regulation of commerce. The bill could take another course if written for referral to the Energy Committee.
Adding to bill-writers' calculation: The Commerce Committee may have a majority to send its bill to passage before the full Senate, while the Energy Committee may not. So, whether a bill makes progress out of committee means its drafter must maneuver to land the bill before a particular committee.
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These days, MacDonough's most striking rulings do concern reconciliation bills. In a polarized Senate,, one of the only ways to get legislation passed is to attach – or "ride" – controversial measures or provisions through the Senate on a reconciliation bill.
Although a minimum wage increase would have some indirect budget implications, MacDonough ruled that it would be only incidental to the COVID-19 relief bill. Conversely,an infrastructure bill could be considered as a reconciliation bill, although individual parts in an infrastructure bill might have to be stricken – depending on MacDonough's rulings on them.
Inas a reconciliation bill, MacDonough allowed into the bill Republican provisions in Alaska to oil drilling, and to for the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate. Both of these provisions affected the budget.
On the other hand, during the Senate's 2017 debate over the American Health Care Act, also being considered as a reconciliation bill,language eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood and language banning abortion coverage in insurance marketplaces were not appropriate for inclusion in the legislation.
The Senate majority does have a way in the most extreme circumstances to bypass a parliamentarian's ruling it doesn't like. It's called the "nuclear option" and in general, it means the majority can alter Senate procedure by changing the number of votes required to end debate and thereby get to approve a matter.
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In, allowing executive and lower-level judicial nominations to have debate cut off, and to be approved, by 51 votes, not the normal 60 votes to cut off debate.
In 2017, the Senate.
The parliamentarian advises on procedure for nominations because there are many points of overlap with consideration of legislation. In a 2018 speech,a "stinging defeat that I tried not to take personally." The parliamentarian stands for regular order, which these moves were not.
What may show up on the parliamentarian's plate later this year or next?
One possibility: President Biden could try to pass a climate control bill by majority vote, as a reconciliation bill. From his decades of Senate experience, he knows the bill must fit the parliamentarian's criteria to get through by 51 votes.
So his administration might offer the Senate a bill on climate in the form of a carbon tax. The bill would be proposed as a tax bill, hence a budget-related bill that gets through the Senate by the 51-vote reconciliation procedure.
, Professor of Law,
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AP PHOTOS: Biden wraps up 1st overseas trip of presidency .
Joe Biden wrapped up the first overseas trip of his presidency Wednesday after rallying allies and facing off with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The eight-day, three-country swing included meetings with leaders of the Group of Seven wealthiest democracies in scenic Cornwall, England, and a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle. In Brussels, Biden huddled with nearly a dozen NATO allies and met with the leadership of the European Union. The stop was meant to convey a united front among alliance members in standing up to Russian aggression and human rights violations. © Provided by Associated Press People watch Air Force One, carrying U.S.