The Speaker’s Lobby: The Parliamentarian

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

13 March 2010

Mickey Rourke is The Wrestler.

Kenny Rogers is The Gambler.

Allen Iverson is The Answer.

Lamont Cranston is The Shadow.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is The Terminator.

And Alan Frumin is The Parliamentarian.

Specifically, the Senate Parliamentarian.

We’re sometimes defined by what we do. You’ve reached cult-like status when your name dissipates and you’re known instead by a singular, sometimes ominous designation. Often punctuated with a definite article.

Such is the case with Alan Frumin, The Parliamentarian. He’s arguably the most-powerful person in Washington as Democrats prepare to push their health care reform measure through Congress in the next few weeks. Frumin will rule what is in and out of the bill. He’ll decide what’s allowed and what isn’t.

The obscure, bookish Frumin has become a near mythic figure in Washington over the past few weeks as the health care reform train rattles down the tracks.

A parliamentary bombshell ripped through the Capitol Thursday when word came that The Parliamentarian made a critical ruling that could hinder Democratic efforts to pass the health care bill. Democrats want to use a legislative method known as “reconciliation” to lug the final health care package across the finish line. Reconciliation is supposed to be used only for budget matters. The advantage for Democrats is that reconciliation only requires a simply majority to pass something. And under special reconciliation rules, Republicans aren’t allowed to filibuster or require a 60 vote supermajority to clear procedural hurdles.

But here’s the problem: both the House and Senate okayed different health care bills last year. In short, the Senate couldn’t stomach the House version and vice versa. So the House is preparing to pass the Senate legislation so the two bills align. On Thursday, Frumin signaled that President Obama must first sign the House-passed Senate bill into law before the Senate can begin altering the legislation through reconciliation to comply with House demands.

And what that means, is that at some point, the House must hold its nose and approve the Senate’s version of the health care bill.

Some Congressional insiders characterized Frumin’s decision as “devastating” for the Democrats’ attempts to pass health care.

And lawmakers began to speak in almost apostolic terms when invoking the name of Senate’s referee.

“The parliamentarian,” said Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), as though invoking some kind of oracle. “We’ve got to comply.”

“The Senate Parliamentarian,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), “Said in order for them to do a reconciliation based on the Senate bill, it must be signed by the president.”

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) asked House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) if the Senate legislation “must be signed into law before the Senate can even take up the reconciliation package?”

“I think the gentleman correctly states the Senate Parliamentarian’s position,” responded Hoyer.

The Parliamentarian’s ruling makes the Democrats health care reform gambit a lot tougher. House Democrats must somehow find the courage to endure the Senate’s original health care legislation, so Mr. Obama can sign it into law. Only then can the Senate begin working on the reconciliation package. House Democrats must take a leap of faith that the Senate will follow through. And they’ll pray that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) can muster the votes to approve the new bill.

“Members of the House are being asked to trust an untrustworthy body,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY). “They’re skittish on whether the Senate has their heart in this.”

And many on Capitol Hill know that once the House approves the Senate legislation, the House loses all control of the bill. House Democratic leaders are prepping their lawmakers to swallow the most bitter legislative pill yet when they vote on the Senate package. And they’re trying to craft assurances that Reid and Senate Democrats will uphold their part of the bargain.

“It will take a little faith. But what we do always does,” said Pelosi.

In fact Pelosi indicated that her members were ready to accept the Senate bill if it meant passing the underlying health care measure a few days later.

“It isn’t going to make any difference except maybe the mood that people are in,” Pelosi said.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) thought it was incumbent on Senate Democrats to make the House corrections in the reconciliation package so they didn’t undercut their House colleagues.

“If we failed to do that after they passed it, they would never cooperate with us again, ever,” said Rockefeller. “I mean, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid probably wouldn’t speak for 25 years.”

All of these parliamentary gymnastics are spurred by the decision of one man: The Parliamentarian. A name that strikes fear into the most-courageous and daring of lawmakers.

Bob Dove preceded Alan Frumin as Senate Parliamentarian. And just as Frumin has achieved such mythic status, Dove has become nearly as celebrated in recent days.

Dove spoke Friday at a forum hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. When Dove worked for the Senate, he was a key player in crafting the reconciliation process.

Dove says when they wrote the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, they only spent about “ten minutes” discussing the reconciliation process because it was viewed then as something “minor.” But Dove notes as the years progressed, lawmakers became more creative in their use of reconciliation as a parliamentary tool.

“Both parties are guilty of using this cheap short-cut to stop debate on things that ought to be debated,” Dove said.

And then Bob Dove floored the crowd. He said something akin to Bill Gates wishing he never formed Microsoft. Susan Boyle regretting her appearance on “Britain’s Got Talent.” Dan Brown growing bitter for writing “The DaVinci Code.”

“If there were anything  I could undo in my life, it was ever helping create the reconciliation process in the Budget Act. It is now a monster. And it is showing its monstrous qualities as it is used by both parties,” Dove said.

He added that reconciliation is now used “to pass utterly outrageous things.”

On Monday at 3 pm, the House Budget Committee is scheduled to set into motion this convoluted Congressional stage play. That panel initiates the process because Article 1, Section 7 of Constitution says that “all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.” A reconciliation bill deals with money and taxes, thus making it a “revenue raising” measure. And if the Senate tried to start, The Parliamentarian would rule against it.

The House Budget panel will then craft a Budget Reconciliation Resolution and send it to the House Rules Committee. The Rules Committee will finalize the package and dispatch it to the House floor. At some point, the House will prospectively pass the old Senate health bill and send it down to the White House so President Obama can sign it into law. For now. That allows the Senate to start its reconciliation process in ten days or so.

All of this will unfold in this manner because of the ruling of  The Parliamentarian. The Parliamentarian has signaled that if Democrats want to play this game, this is the way they must play it. And we’re certain to hear a lot more from The Parliamentarian as the bill advances.

At AEI Friday, Robert Dove, noted he was glad he was “out of the parliamentarian’s chair.” But described the position as an “enormously important role” in the health care debate.

“And I am glad I’m not doing it,” Dove said.

–         Chad Pergram covers Congress for Fox News. He’s earned an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

–         The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.