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Parliamentarians Hold Unruly House Together

It’s not often that Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are on the same page. But, turn to page H1663 of the March 28 Congressional Record, and there they are, under the heading, “On the Retirement of House Parliamentarian John V. Sullivan.” It was Sullivan’s last day as parliamentarian after serving eight years in that post and 25 years as a House staffer.

The two tributes were glowing and heartfelt. Boehner paid homage to the office and the man by noting that the parliamentarians “are really the glue that holds this House together.” Sullivan, the Ohio Republican said, “consistently has shown grace under pressure in what well may be one of the biggest pressure cookers on Earth.”

Pelosi recalled that after her special election in June 1987, she was the first Member to be sworn in after Sullivan began working in the parliamentarian’s office, and he therefore holds “a place of honor in the history of the House and in my personal history.” The California Democrat went on to characterize
Sullivan as “a fair and independent voice, a professional of the highest caliber, a careful steward of the rules of the House, a true public servant.”

Visitors whom I take to the House gallery invariably ask what all those people around the Speaker’s rostrum do. I explain their varied and critical roles in House operations. Central to those operations are the parliamentarians, who not only advise the presiding officer on points of order and where to refer bills but help guide the flow of business by providing those in the chair with appropriate cue cards. From the opening to closing gavels each day, they must pay close attention to everything said and done in the chamber — from the most tedious speeches to critical points on which the fate of an amendment or a Member’s continued presence in the chamber might hang.

Even before I was a member of the House Rules Committee’s staff, I had occasion to work closely with the parliamentarian’s office as former Rep. John Anderson’s (R-Ill.) legislative director. Anderson was a member of the Rules Committee and chairman of the House Republican Conference. He was dogged in holding the Democratic majority’s feet to the fire on matters of fairness and in pushing the GOP’s House reform agenda.

One of my early lessons was that you are better off checking things with the Parliamentarian’s Office before you spring something on the floor. The element of surprise can bite back. Anderson was furious that a House reform package reported by the bipartisan select committee on committees known as the “Bolling Committee” (after its chairman, the late Democratic Rep. Richard Bolling of Missouri) had been sidetracked for months in the Democratic Caucus. We thought we had discovered a rule and precedent that would force Bolling to formally ask the Rules Committee to take action on the measure. So we drafted a resolution raising a question of the privileges of the House to accomplish that.

Unfortunately, before Anderson could call up his resolution on June 27, 1974, Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.) announced that House Parliamentarian Lewis Deschler was retiring that day after 46 years in the office. To make matters worse, Deschler indicated in his resignation letter (read aloud to the House) that in all those years, no Speaker’s ruling (as advised by the parliamentarian) had ever been overturned on appeal.

When Anderson called up his resolution, Majority Leader Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) made a point of order that it was not a legitimate question of privilege. Albert sustained the point of order on grounds the resolution effectively changed House rules by directing the Rules Committee to report the reform measure. We had taken things one step too far. Anderson appealed the ruling of the chair, but his appeal was tabled on a near party-line vote. Deschler stepped down that day with an unblemished record.

After that, I learned I could consult in confidence with the parliamentarian’s office to make sure I was on the right track — sparing my bosses any embarrassment. While the parliamentarians would not tip off a Speaker in advance, they were well prepared to offer the chair a ruling in writing when we attempted our next procedural ploy. And we usually succeeded — a win-win for both offices.

Deschler had trained his assistant parliamentarians well, and each took the reins with competence and confidence when their predecessors retired. William Holmes Brown succeeded Deschler in June 1974, serving until September 1994. Charles W. Johnson III succeeded Brown and served until May 2004. When Republicans took control of the House in 1995, Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) considered replacing Johnson with a Republican staff person. Knowledgeable Republican Members and staff dissuaded him, pointing out that the parliamentarian’s office was like a professional guild and should not be subject to the changing winds of party control (as happened in the Senate).

Gingrich relented and grew to have great confidence in Johnson’s advice, as did his successor, former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Hastert appointed Sullivan as parliamentarian upon Johnson’s retirement, perpetuating the office’s professionalism and stability. I have no doubt that the new parliamentarian, Tom Wickham, will uphold the honorable traditions of the office.

Don Wolfensberger is a Congressional scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center, and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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