How You Can Become Parliamentarian

I was reading Gregory Wawro, Sarah Binder, Steven Smith and Gregory Koger’s Senate testimony earlier today when I came across the comments of Robert Dove, a former Senate parliamentarian (Wikipedia entry here).  What is a parliamentarian, you ask?  The parliamentarian is a non-partisan congressional figure who advises lawmakers and interprets the rules and procedures of the House and Senate.  Dove, currently a professor of political science at George Washington University, had a number of excellent anecdotes about efforts to reform the filibuster; that is, “excellent” if you’re into that kind of stuff.  I wondered: How does one become a parliamentarian?, it turns out, had an article a while back aptly titled “How to become a parliamentarian.”  I’m not kidding, it’s an interesting read.

This entry was posted in Congressional Absurdity, Electoral Institutions, Legislative Politics, Legislative Procedure. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How You Can Become Parliamentarian

  1. Kevin E. says:

    Anthony Madonna has an interesting working paper on the parliamentarian that I recently ran across — here’s the abstract:

    “Scholarship on the United States Senate has demonstrated the pivotal role the presiding officer can play when asked to interpret the chambers’ rules and precedents. This study evaluates factors that influence the presiding officers’ decision-making when such questions arise. I find that partisanship was a significant influence in early senates. However, the emergence of a formal parliamentarian in the 1920s served to decrease informational asymmetries within the chamber, leading to a non-partisan application of rules and precedents.”

    You can check it out here:

    The parliamentarian got a little press coverage during the health care debate, which was interesting to see.

  2. Jordan Ragusa says:


    Thanks for sending this along; I was unaware of Tony’s paper. And yes, the [Senate] parliamentarian got some press during the PPACA debate. I’ve always wondered about partisanship and the parliamentarian. Of course, the standard view is that parties in Congress manipulate chamber rules to produce electorally beneficial outcomes. Though the parliamentarian stands in the way, nothing prevents the majority from manipulating this too. Indeed, the parliamentarian is appointed by the Speaker/Majority Leader, so why not simply appoint a loyal umpire? For example, though Republicans appointed Dove in 1995, they dismissed him in 2001, presumably because of an unfavorable ruling. From the article referenced in my post: “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.”

    The problem with some of the items we study is that the true causal mechanisms are hidden by the veil of Congress. In this case, the parliamentarian is about as behind-the-scene as you can get.

  3. Kevin E. says:

    “Though the parliamentarian stands in the way, nothing prevents the majority from manipulating this too. Indeed, the parliamentarian is appointed by the Speaker/Majority Leader, so why not simply appoint a loyal umpire?”

    A couple thoughts on why there might not be much turnover:

    1) It takes years of apprenticeship to understand the minutiae of the process (specialization is often paired with reciprocity – why would anyone invest 10 years of apprenticeship to learn the minutiae of procedure if they had no job security and MCs didn’t listen to their ruling?).

    2) Perceptions of fairness in the process (when rules aren’t enforced things get ugly).

    3) MCs may prefer altering the rules of the chamber rather than replacing those who enforce them (the only reasons to change the parliamentarian are if there was a miscalculation by the majority when the rules of the game were set or the majority couldn’t get the changes that they wanted – that is, if parliamentarians are truly just applying the rules)

    4) The “we’ll be in the minority again someday too” line of reasoning, which probably connects to 2 above as well…

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