Monday, March 15, 2010

The Senate Parliamentarian

by Richard Crews
An obscure and reclusive figure, the Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin, has recently come into the spotlight--and he may have a historic role to play in the weeks ahead.

Here's the background: After a year in the sausage-making process, the final passage of Obama's health-care reform depends on overcoming two enormous barriers. One is getting the House to pass the same bill the Senate finally passed by the narrowest, filibuster-defying "super-majority" on Christmas Eve.

This will not be easy--if it is even possible. The Republicans have solidified their obstructionist minority against it. The Democrats, fearing the apparent oncoming Republican tsunami in the mid-term elections this fall, are shivering in their boots--they are afraid to reload. Presumably Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, will be able to cull enough favors and twist enough arms to get the health-care reform bill through the House. We shall see.

But even if she does, it then faces an enormous challenge in the Senate, and that is where Alan Frumin comes in. The Senate Republicans would stop it with a filibuster if they could. But the Democrats will try to pass it via a process called "reconciliation," an obscure bit of parliamentary maneuvering not used since President George W. Bush pushed through three major tax cuts favoring the wealthy, each of which was predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to substantially increase federal deficits, and each of which was opposed by the Democrats.

But reconciliation represents a complex set of procedural rules which MAY allow the Republicans to stall the legislation indefinitely by proposing an endless series of amendments. This stalling tactic will only succeed IF the parliamentarian, Frumin, decides that some or many of the amendments are allowable (in theory they must be relevant to the bill and related to budgetary matters).

Although the chairman of the Senate, who is the vice president, Joe Biden, can rule "yes" or "no" on the parliamentarian's suggestions, a recommendation by the parliamentarian has never been refused, and it would be an upsetting historical precedent if one were.

So a major parlor game in Washington these days is to try to outguess and predict what Frumin will do.

Alan Frumin is a quiet, scholarly guy who has held his position under both Democratic and Republican administrations. When called upon in the past, his decisions have been fair, cautious, and not at all political. He is an unknown--a powerful unknown--and Washington politicians hate and fear that.