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The Jedi Knight of Congress

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.

They sit in the House chamber during proceedings and assist the presiding officers on rulings in "real time." They meet with Members, often confidentially, to consult on legislation that the lawmakers might be looking to introduce. They read bills and refer them to the appropriate committee for consideration.

Parliamentarians are kind of like the athletes Sullivan admires: They have rules they play by and a set of skills they perfect over time. But Sullivan says it's also a lot like being a lawyer, which is what attracted him to the post.

"I have to confess that I didn't focus a great deal on the academic or scholarly parameters," Sullivan says. "It was the 'thinking on your feet' aspect. In a way, it's like trying a case in court. You have to be very attentive, you have to react quickly, you have to be articulate but on an extemporaneous level ... the need to pay close attention and react."

In fact, Sullivan said, parliamentarians' days often consist of "just sitting around thinking 'what's the worst thing that can happen now, and what are we going to do about it?'"

When a bill is being debated on the floor, Sullivan says, his staff tries to anticipate any wrinkle that could arise.

And they have to do it in a nonpartisan manner, which isn't always easy in an environment defined by partisanship.

"There have been difficult times," Sullivan concedes. "There's been rancor. We've had tough times managing the process. But, you know, that just happens."

For the most part, however, lawmakers of both parties facilitate a dynamic where parliamentarians feel valued and revered.

"We haven't had a situation where [lawmakers] refuse to take our advice," Sullivan says. "It may be very frequent that they don't like the answer we give them, but they know the advice comes from a place of analysis, not of ideology or advocacy."

When Sullivan departs on March 31, he will say goodbye to his colleagues in the parliamentarian's office, whom he describes as "the closest friends I have." He says he is "keeping an open mind" as to what his next move might be. He could stay in suburban Virginia or move to New York, where two of his three grown children have settled.

He's handing over the reins to his deputy, Thomas Wickham, who Sullivan says doesn't need any advice or pearls of wisdom before he takes over.

"He has a team with him that's the strongest I've ever seen, and that's saying a lot," Sullivan says. "We used to have Johnson and Brown. That's like Ruth and Gehrig."

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