The impending Senate impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump could see an important figure in the national spotlight who is usually quiet and unnoticed.
The Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts, Jr. will preside over the trial as required in the Constitution. “The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present,” says Article I, Section 3.
However, the Chief Justice could depend on the little-known Senate Parliamentarian and her opinion to settle disputes over procedures used in the trial, as well as the daily process of conducting the trial.
The Senate Parliamentarian also plays an important role when Congress is considering the impeachment trial of any government official, determining the basic rules of how the trial will be conducted in consultation with certain Senators.
The current Parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, was named to that position in 2012. There have only been six Senate Parliamentarians since the position was created in 1935. The first Senate Parliamentarian, Charles Watkins, had actually started in the role unofficially in 1923 and he retired as Parliamentarian in 1964, at the age of 85. The office of House Parliamentarian was created in 1927, and there have only been five House Parliamentarians since then. Louis Deschler served from 1927 to 1975 as the first House Parliamentarian.
The office of the Parliamentarian has its roots in Article I, Section 5, of the Constitution, which says that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings” and that “Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings.” Thomas Jefferson played a key role in the early process of compiling the operational rules of the House and the Senate when he published his Manual of Parliamentary Practice in 1801.
The Senate and House have separate Parliamentarians who study the history of each chamber, including volumes of information about precedents and rules. Each has a staff, and the Parliamentarian or staff member is present at all time on the floor of both chambers, sitting close to the presiding officer.
The Parliamentarian answers questions from the presiding officer about the wording of motions, and about precedents related to motions or actions. The Parliamentarian also offers advice about interpreting standing rules about legislation. The presiding officer usually accepts interpretations issued by the Parliamentarian, but the interpretations aren’t binding on their own.
Members of Congress can also consult with the Parliamentarian’s office before and after sessions to get interpretations about rulings. “The parliamentarians and their assistants/deputies make their authoritative knowledge available to all Members on the floor during plenary sessions and from their offices at other times,” said the Congressional Research Service in a November 2018 report.
MacDonough was a non-partisan appointment. She was named to that position by then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid after serving in the Parliamentarian’s office since 1999. The Parliamentarian serves at the request of the leader of the majority faction in the House or Senate. In MacDonough’s case, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would have the ability to dismiss a Parliamentarian if he felt that was an appropriate action. That does happen rarely. In 2001, Trent Lott dismissed Robert Dove, the Senate Parliamentarian, after Republicans were angry that Dove, also a Republican appointee, disallowed spending measures as violating the Byrd Rule.
And on rare occasions, a presiding officer will overrule the Parliamentarian. In 1975, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller ignored advice from Senate Parliamentarian Floyd Riddick about the proper procedure for handing a vote about changing the Senate’s filibuster rules.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center. Parts of this story first appeared in a May 2017 story on Constitution Daily.