Elizabethmacdonoughfeature

Elizabeth MacDonough

What is the Senate Parliamentarian? 

The Senate Parliamentarian is an advisor, seated in an official capacity, to instruct the U.S. Senate as to how best to interpret the Senate Standing Rules and the Parliamentary Procedure. In layman’s terms, the parliamentarian acts as a referee, blowing the whistle when actions of the Senate break the agreed upon guidelines. 

Who is the Senate Parliamentarian? 

The current Senate Parliamentarian is Elizabeth MacDonough. She has been in this position since 2012, through multiple presidential administrations. MacDonough attended undergrad at The George Washington University, and earned a law degree at the University of Vermont Law School. After school, she worked in the Congressional Record Office for several years and served as Assistant District Counsel in the Newark District Office of the U.S. Department of Justice, before moving to the Office of the Senate Parliamentarian. MacDonough began her service there as a Senior Assistant Parliamentarian before being promoted to the Senate Parliamentarian.  

(DECISION UPDATEWhile the parliamentarian ruled against the minimum wage hike, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the policy will remain in the American Rescue Plan.)

This story, as originally published, follows:

Impact on Minimum Wage Decision 

Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), is making a play for a $15 minimum wage by including it in the upcoming coronavirus relief package, set to go to the Senate floor on Feb. 27. Democrats are trying to pass the package through the process of budget reconciliation, which would prevent a filibuster and allow the budget to be passed with a simple majority rather than the typical 60-vote threshold required for such bills.  

In order to pass the bill with a simple majority, the Senate Parliamentarian must determine if the $15 minimum wage addendum falls within the statute of the Byrd Rule, named for the late Sen. Robert Byrd. To fall within this statute, it must be determined that the bill has an impact on the federal government’s finances that is not “merely incidental”. 

Incidental is a vague term and determining its meaning in this instance falls to the Senate Parliamentarian. MacDonough has been faced with several instances of interpreting the meaning of the Byrd Rule in regards to legislation during her tenure as Parliamentarian and has a reputation of narrowly interpreting the rule.  

The argument being put forth by democrats at this time is that the hike to a $15 minimum wage would have a significant, and therefore nonincidental, impact on the federal budget by decreasing spending on safety-net programs such as food assistance or welfare. They are equivocating this usage of reconciliation to the case of the passage of the 2017 tax bill by republicans which included an addendum to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil development to provide precedent for the passage of this relief package. 

If MacDonough determines that this bill falls within the guidelines put forth in the Byrd Rule, it could clear a path for further legislation with influence on the budget that is not considered a tax or spending bill. So, with the interpretation of one word, ‘incidental’, MacDonough has the power to severely impact the party’s agenda in the coming years.  

This may factor into major immigration reform planned by the democratic party. Historically, immigration reform was determined to fall outside of the realm of the Byrd Rule, but if it is determined that MacDonough has a wider interpretation of the rule than what was previously assumed, immigration reform could sneak by within a larger budget bill. The argument being that by expanding the capabilities for undocumented immigrants to become citizens, there would be a larger tax base and greater influx of citizenship fees that could impact the deficit.  

The Senate Parliamentarian is no stranger to the pressures and political turmoil of a decision such as this.

Read further about MacDonough’s past decisions and her reputation for fairness.

Grace Burton

Grace Burton

Research Analyst