Democratic members this week attacked Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough after she (correctly) ruled that the inclusion of the $15 minimum wage hike in a reconciliation bill violated Senate rules. The response from Democratic members and many in the blogosphere was withering. Rep. Ilhan Omar called for MacDonough to be fired and others denounced her actions and called the Senate to simply overrule her — and the long-standing rules. It is not just the effort to gut or flip the “Byrd Rule” but vicious attacks on this parliamentarian that are so disconcerting.
The use of a reconciliation bill was an effort to circumvent the filibuster and allow a majority vote on the hike. However, by using reconciliation, the Democrats triggered the ‘Byrd rule’ – which limits the type of provisions in the reconciliation process to taxing and spending. The purpose is to limit an add-ons through reconciliation to measures designed to have a direct impact on the federal budget—barring the use of reconciliation to introduce “extraneous” measures. Otherwise, reconciliations could circumvent the normal legislative process and the filibuster option for the minority. The rule allows a senator to object when a reconciliation bill is brought to the floor through a Point of Order on the bill. After the Byrd Rule is raised, the Senate Parliamentarian informs the Presiding Officer on how to rule and the Presiding office conveys that to the Senate. Senators can then vote to overrule the Presiding Officer but the process protects the minority and the parliamentarian by requiring that a vote to overrule secure a three-fifths majority.
The Parliamentarian’s role is key to a system of orderly legislative process. To simply disregard such rules (and fire those who seek to maintain them) is yet another example of the rage that has replaced reason in our current politics. Byrd was famous for putting the interests of the Senate and the Constitution before his own party. This effort shows increasingly rare such institutional defenders have become in this age of rage.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was one of the first to balk at any rules standing in the way of reform: “I think the parliamentarian is verging on, you know, just really intruding in this legislative process in a very concerning way.” I am not really sure what that actually means. Parliamentary rules are the thing that defines the legislative process and guarantees a neutral and ordered process of deliberation and enactment.
Yet, she was joined by others who dismissed the notion that such rules should matter. Rep. Ro Khanna declared “I’m sorry – an unelected parliamentarian does not get to deprive 32 million Americans the raise they deserve.” Rep. Pramila Jayapal declared “Twenty-seven million Americans are not going to be much convinced when we go back in two years and say, ‘Sorry, the unelected parliamentarian told us we couldn’t raise the minimum wage.’”
It was a grossly unfair statement that made it sound like MacDonough is against Americans getting deserved wages. Her job is to rule on the procedural means for bringing matters to the floor. Statements like those of Khanna and Jayapall incite those who have attacked MacDonough on the Internet and trashed her reputation.
Omar was one of the first to seek action against MacDonough: “Replace the parliamentarian. What’s a Democratic majority if we can’t pass our priority bills? This is unacceptable.” It was a telling statement. Omar would fire this woman because she is standing in the way of letting Omar and others of having their way. That is the point of parliamentary rules. You do not simply have a right to do what you want in any way that you want to.
Yet, publications like Slate noted “Democrats could also fire MacDonough and replace her with someone who’s a little more go-with-the-flow on all these tedious ‘rules’ issues.”
To its credit, the Biden White House shot down calls for Vice President Kamala Harris to move to overrule the parliamentarian. White House chief of staff Ron Klain told MSNBC “Certainly, that’s not something we would do. We’re going to honor the rules of the Senate and work within that system to get this bill passed.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders insisted that the hike would have an impact on the federal budget and thus the Parliamentarian is wrong. However, his rationale could be used to gut the Byrd Rule by claiming that any bill would have positive impacts on the budget in the long term. All bills are defended on that basis. Sanders notes that the Congressional Budget Office found the $15 wage proposal would cost jobs but would also lift nearly one million out of poverty. That finding however was mixed and the point of the rule is the force such important measures to go through the full legislative process, including being subject to the filibuster rule. This is a massive increase with enormous impacts on the economy. It is the type of action that legislative process is designed address through deliberation and compromise. The filibuster forces such compromise. In this case, even Democratic senators like Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have objected to the hike. In the past, Democrats have recognized the value of that process. Hillary Clinton stated “I learned some valuable lessons about the legislative process, the importance of bipartisan cooperation and the wisdom of taking small steps to get a big job done.”
I will leave the merits of the hike to others. However, the attack on the Parliamentarian, including the call for her being fired, is reprehensible. In a prior column, I wrote how Democrats are adopting the rhetoric and tactics that they denounced in former President Trump. It is also a type of “myside bias” where Democrats disregard any countervailing limits or rules. (They are not alone in such bias. Many of us were critical of former Majority Leader Trent Lott replacing Parliamentarian Robert Dove in 2001, a move that Democrats denounced).
It is not just the attacks on MacDonough that are so reprehensible but the failure of many Democratic senators to denounce those calls for her firing and the abusive comments being made against her in the popular press. When the rage of our politics turns on parliamentarians, you know that we have become entirely untethered from our core values.