If House leaders manage to garner the votes for health care reform, the Senate has agreed to amend its bill through the reconciliation process. At that point, the usually obscure Senate parliamentarian may become the most important obstacle to President Obama’s signature initiative. Alan Frumin will decide which elements of the bill can be dealt with under the restrictive reconciliation rules and how many amendments Senate Republicans can offer. How do you get to be a parliamentarian?
Impress someone who knows the current parliamentarian, then apprentice for at least a decade. Congressional parliamentarians belong to one of the most exclusive professional clubs on earth. Only four men have held the job in the House of Representatives since the position was established in 1928, and five have held the Senate job since 1935. While the majority leader technically has the authority to pick an outgoing parliamentarian’s replacement, the process is more succession than selection. Every parliamentarian has been replaced by his first lieutenant, because no outside hire could possess the knowledge of Senate minutiae that the job requires. Sitting parliamentarians typically fill open assistant jobs by asking respected friends, colleagues, and teachers for recommendations.
The good news is that there are no formal requirements, and you don’t need to know anything about the Senate or its members on your first day. Bob Dove, who held the Senate job for a total of 12 years, had no familiarity whatsoever with the body’s rules and precedents before starting as an assistant. When a position opened up in 1966, sitting Parliamentarian Floyd Riddick asked Duke political science professor Robert Rankin to recommend his best student. The endorsement of Rankin, who mentored both men, and an interview with Riddick landed Dove the job.
Current Parliamentarian Alan Frumin and his senior assistant, Elizabeth McDonough—who will likely ascend to the position when Frumin leaves—also got their jobs through personal references. Frumin was helping the House parliamentarian update Deschler’s Precedents when Senate Parliamentarian Murray Zweben was looking for a new assistant. (Frumin’s familiarity with House rules would have done him no good in the Senate. The two Houses share virtually no common procedures.)
Once you’ve landed the assistant’s job, the real training begins. Dove spent years reading Senate precedents on a Senate-floor couch—there was no C-SPAN at the time—and watched Riddick make rulings. Three years after starting the job, Dove finally saw some action. Riddick permitted him to man the parliamentarian’s station while Sen. Wayne Morse railed against the Vietnam War during late-night sessions. Dove finally got the parliamentarian’s job in 1981, 15 years after starting in the office.
In recent years, job security has been slightly better in the House than in the Senate. The House majority leader and the chairman of the rules committee write the procedural rules for each individual bill, so the parliamentarian’s rulings are rarely make-or-break decisions. (He occasionally assigns a bill to a different committee than the speaker was hoping for, but this has never led to a firing.) Senate debate, however, is governed by a longstanding and complicated set of rules that are interpreted by the parliamentarian. Sometimes his interpretations annoy the majority leader. When Dove ruled that Sen. Trent Lott in 2001 could not add a $5 billion emergency fund to the budget, the majority leader fired him the very same day. As there weren’t many qualified candidates to take his place, Lott had to reappoint Alan Frumin, whom the Republicans had removed six years earlier.
If you really love parliamentary procedure, don’t lose hope. State legislatures employ parliamentarians, and many private organizations hire experts in parliamentary procedure to preside over meetings. You don’t need any particular educational background to become a contract parliamentarian. You will have to bone up on Robert’s Rules of Order—they bear no resemblance to the rules that govern Congress—and might consider getting certified with the National Association of Parliamentarians. To register with the NAP, you’ll have to pass a test on “motions and related concepts,” “meetings, sessions and related procedures,” and several other parliamentary topics. Parliamentarians charge between $75 and $250 per hour, so if you manage to fill a 40-hour week, you have a good shot at clearing the Senate parliamentarian’s $167,000 annual salary.
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Explainer thanks Senate Parliamentarian Emeritus Bob Dove and Tony Madonna of the University of Georgia.