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Parliamentarians Hold Unruly House Together

It’s not often that Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are on the same page. But, turn to page H1663 of the March 28 Congressional Record, and there they are, under the heading, “On the Retirement of House Parliamentarian John V. Sullivan.” It was Sullivan’s last day as parliamentarian after serving eight years in that post and 25 years as a House staffer.

The two tributes were glowing and heartfelt. Boehner paid homage to the office and the man by noting that the parliamentarians “are really the glue that holds this House together.” Sullivan, the Ohio Republican said, “consistently has shown grace under pressure in what well may be one of the biggest pressure cookers on Earth.”

Pelosi recalled that after her special election in June 1987, she was the first Member to be sworn in after Sullivan began working in the parliamentarian’s office, and he therefore holds “a place of honor in the history of the House and in my personal history.” The California Democrat went on to characterize
Sullivan as “a fair and independent voice, a professional of the highest caliber, a careful steward of the rules of the House, a true public servant.”

Visitors whom I take to the House gallery invariably ask what all those people around the Speaker’s rostrum do. I explain their varied and critical roles in House operations. Central to those operations are the parliamentarians, who not only advise the presiding officer on points of order and where to refer bills but help guide the flow of business by providing those in the chair with appropriate cue cards. From the opening to closing gavels each day, they must pay close attention to everything said and done in the chamber — from the most tedious speeches to critical points on which the fate of an amendment or a Member’s continued presence in the chamber might hang.

Even before I was a member of the House Rules Committee’s staff, I had occasion to work closely with the parliamentarian’s office as former Rep. John Anderson’s (R-Ill.) legislative director. Anderson was a member of the Rules Committee and chairman of the House Republican Conference. He was dogged in holding the Democratic majority’s feet to the fire on matters of fairness and in pushing the GOP’s House reform agenda.

One of my early lessons was that you are better off checking things with the Parliamentarian’s Office before you spring something on the floor. The element of surprise can bite back. Anderson was furious that a House reform package reported by the bipartisan select committee on committees known as the “Bolling Committee” (after its chairman, the late Democratic Rep. Richard Bolling of Missouri) had been sidetracked for months in the Democratic Caucus. We thought we had discovered a rule and precedent that would force Bolling to formally ask the Rules Committee to take action on the measure. So we drafted a resolution raising a question of the privileges of the House to accomplish that.

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