Like Chief Justice John Roberts, retiring House Parliamentarian John Sullivan likes to use sports analogies to describe his work.
When lawmakers take on the role of presiding officer to govern floor proceedings, Sullivan says they become “umpires,” shedding their partisan “jerseys” to make rulings irrespective of partisan considerations.
His predecessors, longtime parliamentarians William Holmes Brown and Charles Johnson, gave him a lot to live up to: “They were the major league.”
Unlike Roberts, Sullivan also has a “Star Wars” take on the job.
“The parliamentarians, to me, were like the Jedi knights,” Sullivan says of the days when he was on the outside looking in. “I never dreamed I would be one of them.”
But after eight years as parliamentarian and 25 years on Capitol Hill, Sullivan is stepping down March 31.
In an interview with Roll Call in his office, located just off the Speaker’s Lobby and lined by mahogany shelves filled with aging volumes of the House Journal and procedural reference tomes, Sullivan reflected on how he ended up here.
It was mostly by accident.
Sullivan, educated at the Air Force Academy before going on to earn his law degree at the Indiana University School of Law, thought he would be a trial attorney. He even had a job waiting for him at a firm in Denver.
But during his years in the Air Force, his life moved along a different arc.
“My last active duty in the Air Force was in Washington, but I was planning to leave for Denver as soon as the commitment was completed,” Sullivan says. “I was doing an oral argument at one of the appellate courts downtown, defending an airman in an appeal. Somebody thought they heard something in me that would be useful for the House Armed Services Committee.”
He got an offer to serve as the committee’s counsel on a staff that, at the time, served both Democrats and Republicans. One of Sullivan’s duties was to be a “proceduralist,” as he called himself, and a liaison between the Armed Services Committee and the House parliamentarians. It was in that capacity that he caught the parliamentarians’ eyes.
After three years at Armed Services, the Office of the Parliamentarian asked him to come onboard. He worked his way up and was eventually appointed head of the office.
‘What’s the Worst Thing That Can Happen Now’
Parliamentarians advise the chamber’s leaders and other lawmakers on rules and precedent, offering up unbiased interpretations of legislative procedure.
They sit in the House chamber during proceedings and assist the presiding officers on rulings in “real time.” They meet with Members, often confidentially, to consult on legislation that the lawmakers might be looking to introduce. They read bills and refer them to the appropriate committee for consideration.
Parliamentarians are kind of like the athletes Sullivan admires: They have rules they play by and a set of skills they perfect over time. But Sullivan says it’s also a lot like being a lawyer, which is what attracted him to the post.
“I have to confess that I didn’t focus a great deal on the academic or scholarly parameters,” Sullivan says. “It was the ‘thinking on your feet’ aspect. In a way, it’s like trying a case in court. You have to be very attentive, you have to react quickly, you have to be articulate but on an extemporaneous level … the need to pay close attention and react.”
In fact, Sullivan said, parliamentarians’ days often consist of “just sitting around thinking ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen now, and what are we going to do about it?'”
When a bill is being debated on the floor, Sullivan says, his staff tries to anticipate any wrinkle that could arise.
And they have to do it in a nonpartisan manner, which isn’t always easy in an environment defined by partisanship.
“There have been difficult times,” Sullivan concedes. “There’s been rancor. We’ve had tough times managing the process. But, you know, that just happens.”
For the most part, however, lawmakers of both parties facilitate a dynamic where parliamentarians feel valued and revered.
“We haven’t had a situation where [lawmakers] refuse to take our advice,” Sullivan says. “It may be very frequent that they don’t like the answer we give them, but they know the advice comes from a place of analysis, not of ideology or advocacy.”
When Sullivan departs on March 31, he will say goodbye to his colleagues in the parliamentarian’s office, whom he describes as “the closest friends I have.” He says he is “keeping an open mind” as to what his next move might be. He could stay in suburban Virginia or move to New York, where two of his three grown children have settled.
He’s handing over the reins to his deputy, Thomas Wickham, who Sullivan says doesn’t need any advice or pearls of wisdom before he takes over.
“He has a team with him that’s the strongest I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot,” Sullivan says. “We used to have Johnson and Brown. That’s like Ruth and Gehrig.”