Unfortunately, before Anderson could call up his resolution on June 27, 1974, Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.) announced that House Parliamentarian Lewis Deschler was retiring that day after 46 years in the office. To make matters worse, Deschler indicated in his resignation letter (read aloud to the House) that in all those years, no Speaker’s ruling (as advised by the parliamentarian) had ever been overturned on appeal.
When Anderson called up his resolution, Majority Leader Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) made a point of order that it was not a legitimate question of privilege. Albert sustained the point of order on grounds the resolution effectively changed House rules by directing the Rules Committee to report the reform measure. We had taken things one step too far. Anderson appealed the ruling of the chair, but his appeal was tabled on a near party-line vote. Deschler stepped down that day with an unblemished record.
After that, I learned I could consult in confidence with the parliamentarian’s office to make sure I was on the right track — sparing my bosses any embarrassment. While the parliamentarians would not tip off a Speaker in advance, they were well prepared to offer the chair a ruling in writing when we attempted our next procedural ploy. And we usually succeeded — a win-win for both offices.
Deschler had trained his assistant parliamentarians well, and each took the reins with competence and confidence when their predecessors retired. William Holmes Brown succeeded Deschler in June 1974, serving until September 1994. Charles W. Johnson III succeeded Brown and served until May 2004. When Republicans took control of the House in 1995, Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) considered replacing Johnson with a Republican staff person. Knowledgeable Republican Members and staff dissuaded him, pointing out that the parliamentarian’s office was like a professional guild and should not be subject to the changing winds of party control (as happened in the Senate).
Gingrich relented and grew to have great confidence in Johnson’s advice, as did his successor, former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Hastert appointed Sullivan as parliamentarian upon Johnson’s retirement, perpetuating the office’s professionalism and stability. I have no doubt that the new parliamentarian, Tom Wickham, will uphold the honorable traditions of the office.
Don Wolfensberger is a Congressional scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center, and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.