Who Is the Senate Parliamentarian? How an Unelected Official Is Influencing Biden's Agenda

The Senate parliamentarian has delivered another major blow to President Joe Biden's agenda by ruling against a Democratic measure to provide citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

Elizabeth MacDonough said Sunday that the immigration provision couldn't be included in the party's sprawling $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill, which will be shielded from Republican filibusters.

MacDonough wrote that the "policy changes of this proposal far outweigh the budgetary impact scored to it and it is not appropriate for inclusion in reconciliation," according to Reuters.

It's the second time this year that the parliamentarian has ruled against a key Democratic policy. In March, MacDonough advised that a $15 minimum wage policy didn't qualify for passage in Biden's trillion-dollar coronavirus relief bill.

Progressives immediately called for the administration to ignore MacDonough's latest counsel, arguing that an unelected official shouldn't have the final say on the matter.

"Can anyone explain to me why we are passively giving Elizabeth MacDonough who has not won a single vote more power than any sitting Senator or House member to kill the $15 wage and common sense immigration policy? Overrule her," Representative Ro Khanna wrote on Twitter.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib also tweeted: "An unelected person isn't a real barrier to the much needed investments we were elected to make. Ignore this ruling or get a new one."

The parliamentarian is a nonpartisan advisor on how to interpret the Senate rules and protocols. MacDonough was named to the position in 2012 at the recommendation of then-Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"She has a reputation of trying to preserve certain institutional norms in the chamber rather than serving any kind of partisan agenda," Phil Wallach, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told Newsweek. "So she's ended up frustrating both sides at various times."

Rulings by the parliamentarian are only advisory, meaning that they hold no formal power and can be overruled by the presiding officer. But such cases are extremely rare—the last time the official's advice was ignored was by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in 1975.

"What the parliamentarian does have is informal power," Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown's Governmental Affairs Institute, told Newsweek. "Enough senators believe that the parliamentarian has neutral advice and they should go with that neutral advice."

Richard Arenberg, who worked on congressional staffs for over 30 years and co-authored Defending the Filibuster: The Soul of the Senate, compared the role of the parliamentarian to that of an umpire in baseball.

"Occasionally these matters come along that have huge policy implications," Arenberg told Newsweek.

"The reconciliation process has put very political issues—like the repeal of Obamacare, during the Clinton administration, welfare reform, the huge Bush tax cuts—it puts these things really in the lap of the parliamentarian," Arenberg said.

Who Is the Senate Parliamentarian?
The Senate parliamentarian has delivered another major blow to President Joe Biden’s agenda by ruling against a Democratic measure to provide citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. The U.S. Capitol Building is seen on July 26, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

While some progressives are calling to overrule MacDonough on the immigration measure, experts said Democrats don't have the support they need to do so.

"They just don't have the votes," Glassman said.

Arenberg warned of the consequences of breaking the "ironclad precedent" in the Senate to follow the recommendations of the parliamentarian.

"That's been done under both parties because, you know, anything short of that would be kind of chaos," he said.

Even if leaders were to ignore MacDonough's guidance, they could then face opposition from moderate Democrats who have previously expressed support for the parliamentarian. The party cannot afford to lose a single vote in order for the reconciliation bill to succeed.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the parliamentarian's decision was "deeply disappointing" and that lawmakers were working on other measures that may pass her judgment.

"Senate Democrats have prepared alternate proposals and will be holding additional meetings with the Senate parliamentarian in the coming days," Schumer said.