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VERIFY: Who is the Senate parliamentarian?

A ruling that a $15 minimum wage could not be included in the COVID relief bill marked the first time many had ever heard of the Senate parliamentarian.

This week, the Senate parliamentarian said that it was against the Senate’s rules for Democrats to add a minimum wage increase to their budget reconciliation bill as part of President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan. But this was the first time many had even heard of the Senate parliamentarian. 

Who actually is this person and do they have that kind of power? Naturally, those were the questions people have had on their mind since first learning about this position in the government.

THE QUESTION

Who is the Senate parliamentarian? Do they actually have the power to stop the Senate from adding something to a bill?

THE ANSWER

The Senate parliamentarian advises the Senate on its rules and procedures. However, the position has no formal power. While rare, there is nothing stopping the majority from changing the Senate’s rules. This is called the “nuclear option.”

WHY WE ARE VERIFYING

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding this role and what the recent news means for the potential increase in minimum wage.

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WHAT WE FOUND

According to the Senate, the parliamentarian didn’t even exist until the 20th century. The Senate says that Charles Watkins became the unofficial advisor on floor procedure to the presiding officer in 1923, which essentially gave him the duties of the Senate parliamentarian before the title became official later.

The Senate describes the parliamentarian’s role as the “Senate's advisor on the interpretation of its rules and procedures.” The person is especially important to the current presiding officer of the Senate, who leans on the Senate parliamentarian in ruling on debates and legislative action.

The National Constitution Center says there have just been six Senate parliamentarians in history and the current one, Elizabeth MacDonough , was named to the role in 2012. She or one of her staff members is on the floor of the Senate at all times and sits close to the presiding officer.

But the Senate parliamentarian is an advisor on the rules. Ultimately, advisors can be ignored.

Ronald Weich, dean and professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, told the VERIFY team, “In my experience the chair always follows the parliamentarian’s advice when ruling on a question, but the chair’s ruling can be appealed to the full Senate and can be overruled by majority vote. When that happens, a new precedent is established.”

To understand the Senate parliamentarian’s relationship to the Senate, you have to understand why they advise the Senate’s presiding officer. The Senate says the presiding officer is “a majority-party senator who presides over the Senate and is charged with maintaining order and decorum, recognizing members to speak, and interpreting the Senate's rules, practices and precedents.”

Basically, the Senate parliamentarian advises the presiding officer on the Senate’s rules and the presiding officer actually enforces those rules. 

But it’s the Senate itself that makes those rules and those rules are made through majority vote. So, in this case, if the Democrats wanted to change the rules and the Republicans weren’t on board with it, the Democrats could change the rules anyway in what’s been nicknamed the “the nuclear option,” according to Weich.

This is rare, but you’ve probably heard of it before because it has happened twice recently. Reich says the Democrats “went nuclear” in 2013 to eliminate filibusters of executive and judicial nominations except to the Supreme Court and in 2017 the Republicans “went nuclear” to eliminate the filibuster of Supreme Court nominations.

A 2012 study from a pair of professors at the University of Georgia and University of Kansas credit the rarity of partisan decisions and rule changes. They say the Senate parliamentarian “has led to fewer instances of partisan rulings on questions of order and raised the costs of executing a drastic change in Senate procedure via unorthodox procedures.” Each use of “the nuclear option” has been controversial, after all.

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BOTTOM LINE

The Senate parliamentarian advises the Senate on rules and procedures, but doesn’t have any actual powers. The Senate could make rule changes and go through with something even if the Senate parliamentarian says something is against the Senate’s rules, and the Senate’s majority party can even do this without the support of the minority party. That’s happened before but is typically controversial.

This week, the Senate parliamentarian told Democrats that the existing Senate rules prohibit them from adding a minimum wage increase to their COVID relief bill. Senate Democrats have not yet chosen how they’ll respond.

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