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Meet the Senate Parliamentarian, Key Figure in Minimum-Wage Debate

Elizabeth MacDonough is the sixth person and first woman to hold the title of chief Senate parliamentarian. Her job includes acting as the nonpartisan referee in deciding whether certain provisions can be included in bills lawmakers are trying to pass under a special process tied to the budget, known as reconciliation.

Reconciliation is designed to help lawmakers pass legislation tied to the budget quickly with just 51 votes, rather than the 60 required for most bills to advance. That means Democrats will be able to pass the bill without any GOP votes, so long as they don’t lose any Democrats.

Elizabeth MacDonough has been the chief Senate parliamentarian since 2012.


U.S. Senate Photographic Studio

Q: How does the parliamentarian decide which provisions are allowed under reconciliation?

To qualify for the special fast-track procedures, measures have to be directly tied to the budget. Specifically, they have to have a meaningful fiscal impact that can’t be “merely incidental” to the policy proposal. If not, the provision can be challenged under the “Byrd rule,” named for the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.).

The Byrd rule also prevents any provision of the bill from adding to the deficit beyond the bill’s budgetary window, unless lawmakers find a way to offset its cost through the committee that has jurisdiction over that provision.

In this case, several provisions could be on the chopping block with the parliamentarian, including the minimum-wage increase and a mandate that businesses provide paid sick leave—since opponents argue that the budgetary impacts are secondary.

Q: How did Ms. MacDonough become the chief parliamentarian?

Ms. MacDonough is a former Senate library worker and trial attorney who has worked in the parliamentarian’s office since 1999. She served first as the senior assistant parliamentarian before becoming the chief parliamentarian in 2012. She has kept her job during periods when each party has controlled the chamber and is well respected on both sides.

Parliamentarians are considered nonpartisan and are hired by the secretary of the Senate, though they can lose their jobs if their decisions displease powerful lawmakers. Then-Majority Leader

Trent Lott

(R., Miss.) fired parliamentarian Robert Dove in 2001 over decisions he made, according to several people familiar with the situation.

President-elect Joe Biden said he will be “laying out the groundwork” for another Covid-19 relief package next week; he is also seeking an increase in the federal minimum wage. Photo: Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Q: How does the parliamentarian reach her decision?

Ms. MacDonough issues her guidance after weeks and sometimes months of confidential meetings, first with Republicans and Democrats separately, later in bipartisan sessions known as “Byrd baths,” where each side argues its case.

“There have been a lot of meetings. I think we are expecting a decision fairly soon,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) told reporters Tuesday.

Q: Is the parliamentarian’s ruling final or can it be challenged?

Traditionally, lawmakers have deferred to the nonpartisan parliamentarian, or worked to tweak the bill to comply with her guidance. For example, when Republicans tried unsuccessfully to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they ran into problems trying to repeal the individual mandate, the requirement that many individuals buy coverage or pay a penalty. But after conferring with Ms. MacDonough, Republicans altered the bill to leave the mandate in place but set the penalty at zero dollars.

Read More: Meet the Senate Parliamentarian, Key Figure in Minimum-Wage Debate

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