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House Leaders Honor Ex-Parliamentarian

While retired House Parliamentarian Charlie Johnson worked under seven House Speakers more than 40 years, he declined to name one of the seven as his favorite.

But, he said, John McCormack “had a special appreciation and affinity for his staff,” which explains why the former Speaker’s name is on the award Johnson will receive next month.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) chose Johnson, 65, to receive the annual McCormack Award for Excellence, which recognizes dedicated and bipartisan House employees. Johnson retired last May from his position as Parliamentarian.

The Speaker and the Minority Leader choose the recipient for the McCormack award each year. This year’s choice was obvious, said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly, because of the respect and high regard that everyone on both sides of the aisle holds for Johnson.

“It was utterly predictable that [Johnson] would not name a favorite [Speaker],” said Johnson’s successor, John Sullivan. “He has a greater capacity to see the good in people than anyone I have ever known.”

Before arriving in the Parliamentarian’s office in 1987, Sullivan served as counsel to the House Armed Services Committee. He said he jumped at the chance to work with Johnson.

“I viewed him as such an exalted person, he became my mentor,” Sullivan said. “It’s like being taught baseball by Babe Ruth.”

The House Parliamentarian advises the Speaker and all Members on rules and precedent, often on a confidential basis as with an attorney-client privilege. Appointed by the Speaker, the Parliamentarian is a nonpartisan position, since interpretation of rules must be unbiased.

The most sustaining aspect of the job, Johnson said, was the opportunity to work with all Members and their staffs. Someone from the Parliamentarian’s office must always observe floor proceedings, but the job extends further than merely listening to debate, Johnson said.

“More important is to facilitate House focus on substantive legislation with minimal delays,” he said.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the legislative workload was smaller than today and Members spent more hours arguing the process, Johnson explained. Today, with less time available to argue, the Parliamentarian becomes lucrative in assuring that debate operates according to the rules and procedures of the House.

Following his 1963 graduation from the University of Virginia law school — the degree is a requirement for the position — and facing the draft, Johnson joined the New York National Guard. He spent the last three years of his six-year commitment with the Guard as a judge advocate general officer reservist in Washington, D.C.

While finishing his military commitment, Johnson started as an assistant to then-Parliamentarian Lewis Deschler in May 1964. McCormack was the Speaker at the time.

In 1994, Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) appointed Johnson to the Parliamentarian position. When the Republicans took control of the House a few months later, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) reappointed Johnson. Hastert upheld the appointment when he became Speaker in 1999.

Since retiring last May after 10 years as Parliamentarian and 40 years in the Parliamentarian’s office, Johnson has remained under contract at the House to bring the procedural precedence manual up-to-date. In addition, he will begin teaching a seminar on the Congressional process at the University of Virginia next year.

He also is working with Sir William McKay, former clerk of the British House of Commons, on a book comparing the procedures of the their respective chambers. Johnson and McKay developed a working relationship over the years and have become close friends as well, Johnson said.

On the side, Johnson, a lefty, occasionally pitches batting practice to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Though born and raised a Giants fan in New York’s Westchester County, the Dodgers organization has been very kind to him, he said.

“I feel conflicted,” he said. With his loyalty torn, he seems to be having a hard time choosing a favorite.

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