Some Democrats want to fire Senate parliamentarian over minimum wage plans

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would still pass a version of the stimulus package including a miminim wage increase

Katie Shepherd
Friday 26 February 2021 17:16
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<p>Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough (right) has been working in the position since 2012</p>

Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough (right) has been working in the position since 2012

As Democrats sought to use budget reconciliation to keep Republicans from filibustering a minimum wage increase in the Senate, the decision on whether to allow the measure to be fast-tracked inside a proposed coronavirus relief package fell to one woman: the unelected and nonpartisan Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough.

After Ms MacDonough on Thursday dashed the majority party’s hopes of passing a $15-an-hour (about £11) minimum wage increase within the bill, Democrats were left to debate a range of options, from redoing the legislation to dropping the wage increase to trying to override Ms MacDonough’s ruling.

But at least one lawmaker called for an even more radical solution: firing the Senate’s referee.

“Abolish the filibuster. Replace the parliamentarian,” Representative Ilhan Omar said in a tweet on Thursday. “What’s a Democratic majority if we can’t pass our priority bills? This is unacceptable.”

The Biden administration showed little appetite to challenge Ms MacDonough following her ruling on Thursday, saying they were “disappointed,” but would continue to move forward with the stimulus without the minimum wage increase.

Still, Mr Omar’s suggestion isn’t without precedent. Twenty years ago, faced with a similar hurdle in an equally divided Senate for an ambitious tax-cutting plan, Republicans fired the parliamentarian standing in their way.

Parliamentarians are essentially the umpires of the Senate, ensuring that lawmakers follow the rules that govern how legislation moves forward. In recent years, the most difficult calls have involved bills passed through budget reconciliation, which allows the Senate to end debate and call a vote with the support of a simple majority. Ms MacDonough has struck prohibited measures from those bills several times, confounding both Republicans and Democrats.

Parliamentarians often serve for decades and span multiple presidencies. Only six people have served in the role since its inception in 1935, and Ms MacDonough, an independent and the first woman to serve as Senate parliamentarian, has been in the position since 2012.

Ms MacDonough earned her degrees from George Washington University and Vermont Law School. She began working as an assistant parliamentarian for the Senate in 1999 before eventually being appointed by a Democrat to replace her predecessor after he retired in 2012. She has played a critical role in refereeing Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and unsuccessfully tried to dissuade Democrats from barring filibusters during most confirmation hearings for presidential appointees.

Generally, the parliamentarian’s rulings are respected by whichever party is in power.

But in 2001, Republicans took a drastic step after a series of rulings went against their plans. The Senate was evenly split at the time, with the GOP holding a razor-thin majority thanks to recently elected Vice President Richard Cheney’s tiebreaking vote.

Republicans tried to usher tax cuts through Congress under the budget reconciliation process that allows the Senate to move legislation forward with a simple 51-vote majority rather than the 60 votes normally required to avoid a filibuster. But then-Senate parliamentarian Robert Dove ruled that most of the tax cuts and a measure creating a $5 billion (about £3.6 billion) fund for natural disaster damage could not be considered using the reconciliation process.

He was promptly dismissed by Secretary of the Senate Gary Sisco at the behest of then-Majority Leader Trent Lott. Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, the Senate’s top Democrat at the time, called the firing “very disappointing and extremely harmful to the process,” but did not say much else.

Mr Dove had served as parliamentarian from 1981 to 1987 and again from 1995 to 2001, but he began working for the parliamentarian’s office in the mid-1960s. He helped write the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, which created budget reconciliation as a way to avoid filibusters.

The move to oust Mr Dove, who had been standing in the Republicans’ way, did not stop future parliamentarians from frustrating senators in both parties over the next two decades. His successor, Alan Frumin, once said, “I know I’ve done my job when everyone thinks I’m somehow favoring the other side.” Mr Frumin and Ms MacDonough, who took over the role after his retirement, have frustrated both Republicans and Democrats seeking to bypass legislation-blocking filibusters.

Most Democrats upset at Ms MacDonough’s ruling on Thursday pushed less extreme responses, like overruling her. If Vice President Kamala Harris chose that path, Democrats would still need votes to do so, and Senator Joe Manchin III, has publicly vowed to oppose going against the parliamentarian.

“The Senate parliamentarian issues an advisory opinion,” Representative Pramila Jayapal, said in a tweet Thursday evening. “The VP can overrule them - as has been done before. We should do EVERYTHING we can to keep our promise, deliver a $15 minimum wage, and give 27 million workers a raise.”

Parliamentarians have been ignored in the past, like in 1975, when Vice President Nelson Rockefeller ignored the advice of the parliamentarian as the Senate debated filibuster rules. Ms McDonough has been overruled twice before: in 2013, when Democrats deployed the so-called “nuclear option” to eliminate filibusters to approve presidential nominees, and in 2017, when Republicans expanded the filibuster ban to include Supreme Court nominees.

But White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain recently said the administration will not consider acting against Ms MacDonough’s advice. “[Biden] will work with leaders in Congress to determine the best path forward because no one in this country should work full time and live in poverty,” he said.

Despite Ms MacDonough’s ruling, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, vowed to pass a version of the stimulus package that still included the minimum wage increase on Friday.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, also promised to keep fighting for a minimum wage bump, but did not specify how the Senate would approach the issue.

Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been one of the most vocal supporters of a minimum wage increase, proposed an alternative plan to potentially get around Ms MacDonough’s decision by implementing penalties and incentives to push companies toward higher wages.

“I will be working with my colleagues in the Senate to move forward with an amendment to take tax deductions away from large, profitable corporations that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour and to provide small businesses with the incentives they need to raise wages,” Mr Sanders said in a statement. “That amendment must be included in this reconciliation bill.”

The Washington Post

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