Elizabeth MacDonough Is the Senate Parliamentarian. What in the World Does She Do?

By: Patty Rasmussen  | 

Senate Parliamentarian
The Senate parliamentarian is charged with providing expert insight and guidance on questions relating to the meaning and application of the Senate's rules, precedents and practices. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Once again, the Senate parliamentarian, a little understood, nonpartisan, nonelected government official, has made a decision affecting millions of lives.

A Sept. 19, 2021, ruling by Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate’s nonpartisan interpreter of its sometimes enigmatic rules, blocked a plan to use the $3.5 trillion spending bill as a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants. Under the rejected plan, that was proposed by Democrats, millions of green cards would have been provided for several groups of immigrants including young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children (typically called "Dreamers"); those under temporary potected status (refugees of natural disasters or armed conflict); essential workers and farm workers.

Instead, the parliamentarian decided that the immigration provisions cannot be included in the enormous funding bill that is protected from GOP filibusters. Without filibuster protection, the immigration provisions have no chance of passing in a deadlocked, 50-50 Senate — which is what we've got now.

We know. You've got questions. Like, what's a Senate parliamentarian? How'd she get that job? And all that power?

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What Does the Parliamentarian Do?

You can think of the parliamentarian as a legislative umpire. Only instead of balls and strikes, they're providing expert insight and guidance on questions relating to the meaning and application of the Senate's rules, precedents and practices; offering written direction on procedural questions; advising on the movement of legislation to the appropriate committee; and maintaining and publishing rules and guidelines.

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Why Did the Senate Need a Parliamentarian?

It's not hard to understand why the Senate might need such an official. Senators and their staff deal with complex legislation and equally complicated procedures. They needed access to nonpartisan and confidential legislative expertise both to develop new legislation and to understand the rules that govern the Senate. In 1935, the Senate established the Office of the Parliamentarian, and since 1935, there have been just eight Senate parliamentarians.

Senate Parliamentarian
Police tape hangs from the door to the Senate parliamentarian's office at the U.S. Capitol following the Jan. 6 attack by a pro-Trump mob in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The parliamentarian is hired by the secretary of the Senate, though they are appointed by the Senate majority leader. They have a staff of assistants who are available to Senate members both on the floor when in session and from their offices. When the Senate is in session, the parliamentarian (or someone from the staff) is always seated at the podium below the presiding officer's desk.

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What Kinds of Things Does the Parliamentarian Rule On?

The parliamentarian is the arbiter of rules and procedures. For example, in February 2021, during budget reconciliation, the Senate parliamentarian had the task of deciding what was and what was not "extraneous," (it's also called the Byrd Rule). So, because the parliamentarian ruled that a provision which sought to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 in an initial version of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act of 2021 was "merely incidental" to the bill, it was disallowed in the final version of the plan. That's real power.

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