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Who is the Senate parliamentarian and why is she important?

The Hill logo The Hill 3/2/2021 Alexander Bolton
Elizabeth MacDonough et al. standing in front of a crowd: Who is the Senate parliamentarian and why is she important? © Greg Nash Who is the Senate parliamentarian and why is she important?

The Senate parliamentarian is the official who interprets the Senate's complex, arcane rules and has a major influence in the day-to-day running of the upper chamber.

What is her role?

Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appointed Elizabeth MacDonough as the Senate's first female parliamentarian in 2012, and she has held the position until present.

The parliamentarian and her team provide daily advice to the Senate's presiding officer on the correct execution of floor procedure, but one of her biggest jobs is to decide what can and can't be included in legislation passed under special budgetary rules known as reconciliation.

These budgetary rules can only be used on a few occasions each Congress and normally are invoked only when the same party controls the White House, the Senate and House, as Democrats do now and as Republicans did in 2017 and 2018.

What is reconciliation? Why is the Senate using it on coronavirus relief?

The benefit of passing legislation under the special budget reconciliation process is that it requires only a simple-majority vote in the Senate to become law, bypassing the 60-vote threshold that controversial bills are usually required to clear.

But the Senate's Byrd Rule lays out several requirements for any legislation included in a budget reconciliation package. The most well-known rule is that the provision in question must produce changes in outlays or revenues that are not merely incidental to its nonbudgetary impact.

The parliamentarian decides what meets and does not meet the Byrd Rule.

Democrats control the Senate with a razor-thin 50-50 majority by virtue of the fact that Vice President Harris, who is also the president of the Senate, casts tie-breaking votes.

What key decision did the parliamentarian make?

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats wanted to include legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 in the COVID-19 relief package they hoped to pass with a simple-majority vote under special budgetary rules.

But MacDonough dealt Democrats a setback Thursday when she ruled that language raising the minimum wage could not be included in the COVID-19 relief package because unlike the other components of the bill, it's budgetary impact was incidental to its sweeping implications for the U.S. economy as a major policy change.

That decision outraged the proponents of raising the minimum wage, such as Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

"I was extremely disappointed by the decision of the parliamentarian who ruled that the minimum wage provision was inconsistent with the Byrd Rule and the reconciliation process," Sanders said Monday. "But even more importantly, I regard it as absurd that the parliamentarian, a Senate staffer elected by no one, can prevent a wage increase for 32 million workers."

What happens next?

Some liberal activists are calling on Schumer to invoke his power to replace the parliamentarian with someone who would allow the minimum wage increase to pass with a simple-majority vote, but that's not likely.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Monday said he does not favor firing the parliamentarian.

"This parliamentarian is a principled person who gave the ruling that she thought was right under the rules," he said.

Other progressives, including Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), say the parliamentarian's decision should be ignored or overruled.

Can Democrats ignore the parliamentarian's ruling?

A vote to overrule MacDonough would require the support of all 50 Democrats and Harris.

White House chief of staff Ron Klain and press secretary Jen Psaki have both dismissed the idea of a vote to overturn the parliamentarian's decision.

Has this ever happened before?

The majority leader has fired the Senate parliamentarian before over a rules dispute.

In 2001, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) fired Parliamentarian Robert Dove after he issued an interpretation of the rules that would have made it difficult if not impossible to pass President George W. Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut.

MacDonough has issued other controversial rulings on what can be passed under special budgetary rules.

She ruled in 2017 that Republicans could add provisions to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling and to eliminate the tax penalty associated with the Affordable Care Act's mandate on individuals to purchase health insurance.

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