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Sept. 1, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

The Jedi Knight of Congress

Sullivan Recalls Path to Parliamentarian

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Parliamentarian John Sullivan looks back on how he came to the job and the demands of the position as he prepares to step down on March 31 after eight years as parliamentarian and 25 years on Capitol Hill.

Like Chief Justice John Roberts, retiring House Parliamentarian John Sullivan likes to use sports analogies to describe his work.

When lawmakers take on the role of presiding officer to govern floor proceedings, Sullivan says they become "umpires," shedding their partisan "jerseys" to make rulings irrespective of partisan considerations.

His predecessors, longtime parliamentarians William Holmes Brown and Charles Johnson, gave him a lot to live up to: "They were the major league."

Unlike Roberts, Sullivan also has a "Star Wars" take on the job.

"The parliamentarians, to me, were like the Jedi knights," Sullivan says of the days when he was on the outside looking in. "I never dreamed I would be one of them."

But after eight years as parliamentarian and 25 years on Capitol Hill, Sullivan is stepping down March 31.

In an interview with Roll Call in his office, located just off the Speaker's Lobby and lined by mahogany shelves filled with aging volumes of the House Journal and procedural reference tomes, Sullivan reflected on how he ended up here.

It was mostly by accident.

Sullivan, educated at the Air Force Academy before going on to earn his law degree at the Indiana University School of Law, thought he would be a trial attorney. He even had a job waiting for him at a firm in Denver.

But during his years in the Air Force, his life moved along a different arc.

"My last active duty in the Air Force was in Washington, but I was planning to leave for Denver as soon as the commitment was completed," Sullivan says. "I was doing an oral argument at one of the appellate courts downtown, defending an airman in an appeal. Somebody thought they heard something in me that would be useful for the House Armed Services Committee."

He got an offer to serve as the committee's counsel on a staff that, at the time, served both Democrats and Republicans. One of Sullivan's duties was to be a "proceduralist," as he called himself, and a liaison between the Armed Services Committee and the House parliamentarians. It was in that capacity that he caught the parliamentarians' eyes.

After three years at Armed Services, the Office of the Parliamentarian asked him to come onboard. He worked his way up and was eventually appointed head of the office.

'What's the Worst Thing That Can Happen Now'

Parliamentarians advise the chamber's leaders and other lawmakers on rules and precedent, offering up unbiased interpretations of legislative procedure.

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