Meet the little-known power player with the 'hardest job' on Capitol Hill who just gave Biden's infrastructure plan a pathway in the Senate
- Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate’s nonpartisan referee, keeps the chamber in line behind the scenes.
- But the spotlight turned on her with Trump’s impeachment trial, the stimulus and infrastructure.
- MacDonough is the sixth Senate parliamentarian and the first woman to hold the job.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Her voice is rarely heard as lawmakers squabble on the Senate floor over complicated procedures, arcane rules, impeachment trials, and recently what was allowed in the coronavirus rescue package passed in March.
But Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough is one of the most powerful attorneys in Washington. Although she’s seldom quoted and rarely photographed in public, she’s the quiet force who is already playing a pivotal role in President Joe Biden’s agenda.
Her decision on April 5 clearing the way for Democrats to move their infrastructure package through the budget reconciliation process was a major victory for Biden. It means Democrats could dodge a Republican filibuster and pass the bill with a simple 51-vote majority, including Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaker.
Read more: Here are 9 hurdles Biden’s infrastructure plan would have to overcome in Congress before it can become law
But MacDonough’s decisions aren’t always favorable to the leading party. In February, she torpedoed Democrats’ plan to hike the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour when her office ruled that they could not include that proposal in the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that they subsequently passed. That decision meant Biden and Democrats had to punt their minimum wage plan for another time.
The parliamentarian’s office helps guide senators on what’s allowed or forbidden in their legislations by listening to arguments from both Democrats and Republicans, researching precedents, and using long-standing rules.
“Her decisions will literally impact the Biden presidency, the Republican Party’s next election, and most importantly, our country,” Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s Democratic Whip, told Insider recently.
It’s only April but 55-year-old MacDonough is already having a busy year. She was a constant presence helping steer former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial in February. Then she advised Democrats on their plan to fast-track Biden’s coronavirus relief bill. And then there’s infrastructure.
As the Senate parliamentarian since 2012, MacDonough — or anyone else who holds that job — is expected to be nonpartisan. She sparred with the Democratic majority in 2013 over Senate rule changes as much as she did in 2017 when Republicans were in charge.
On most days, MacDonough and her staff of two assistants advise all 100 senators about their amendments and bills and assign those bills to committees. They help direct senators on the right language to use when presiding over the Senate floor action.
Parliamentarians can get calls from senators on both sides of the aisle any time during the day or night. All of the information and advice they give is confidential.
Sometimes parliamentarians sleep in roll-out beds in their offices if the Senate is working around the clock. Alan Frumin, who retired from his job as a parliamentarian in 2012, said he couldn’t think of any job in the private sector that was like it.
“Trust me she’s never idle,” Frumin said. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s the hardest job on Capitol Hill.”
A pivotal voice in Biden’s agenda
MacDonough has been in the parliamentarian’s office for two decades, including as an assistant parliamentarian for a decade before the promotion to the top job.
She had started her career in the Senate library before heading to Vermont Law School and then working as a trial attorney. Her parliamentarian job is a career position that’s supposed to be free from politics and that exists to defend the institution of the Senate.
“She does give us advice,” Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland told Insider. “That advice can help us, not to circumvent the Senate rules, but to conform to the Senate rules.”
She’ll be at the center of Biden’s agenda as Democrats seek ways to fastrack legislation by circumventing the near-certain GOP filibuster. She’s been there before, including during the Trump administration when Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and in 2017 as they passed their tax cuts.
The Senate’s budget reconciliation process comes with strict rules about when it can and can’t be used.
For instance, in her minimum wage decision, MacDonough decided that the Democrats’ plan would have violated the “Byrd Rule,” which is named for its author, the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. The rule stipulates that everything that passes through reconciliation has to pertain directly and significantly to the federal budget. Anything that doesn’t has to go through the regular, slower Senate process and can be subject to a filibuster.
Senators tend to alter their legislation at the advice of the parliamentarian rather than defy her. For instance, in 2017 Republicans ran afoul of the Byrd rule when they wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act-created penalty on the uninsured. To comply with the rules, they set the tax penalty at $0 instead.
“I think the general inclination is to stick with the order of things, go with the flow,” Durbin said. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but have respect for the process.”
Some lawmakers have tried to break the norm of not defying the parliamentarian. Four years ago, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas unsuccessfully urged Pence to overrule MacDonough on the reconciliation bill to try to repeal larger parts of the Affordable Care Act.
And Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat of California in February urged Harris to step in to help pass a $15 minimum wage even if the parliamentarian ruled that it couldn’t be included in reconciliation.
“I’m sorry — an unelected parliamentarian does not get to deprive 32 million Americans the raise they deserve,” he wrote.
Saving Electoral College votes from insurrectionists
MacDonough’s ruling on the minimum wage and work on the stimulus package comes after a consequential early start to the year for Congress. As the country followed the first day of the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump on their screens in mid-February, keen observers might have caught a glance of the brown-haired woman sitting just below and in front of Sen. Patrick Leahy, the presiding officer.
MacDonough got up from her chair several times to talk with the Vermont Democrat before he started the proceedings. Back on her seat, she swept her glasses to rest on top of her head, passed a bunch of papers around, and leaned over to whisper something to the assistant secretary of the Senate.
Even in the highly emotional courtroom where senators were reliving the trauma of the January 6 pro-Trump mob attack, lawmakers can’t just say or do whatever they want. There’s a process everyone had to follow when it comes to motions, objections, and procedures. And MacDonough was there to help make sure sure that senators — all 100 of them — were in line, just like she did about a year ago during Trump’s first impeachment trial.
MacDonough, who has spent almost her entire career working in the Senate, belongs to an exclusive club. She’s only the sixth parliamentarian and the first woman to do the job.
In a 2018 commencement speech to Vermont Law School graduates, MacDonough recalled her early days in the Senate when she was terrified daily by then-Byrd’s criticisms, which she described as a “Socratic method on steroids.”
MacDonough said she later developed a “wonderful” working relationship with the West Virginia Democrat. The “Byrd rule” that she is interpreting for the stimulus was named after him.
“Conversing with him one afternoon, Senator Byrd said to me, ‘I didn’t like you when you first started, I didn’t think you would amount to much…but oh my, how you have surprised me’,” she recalled in her humorously-delivered speech at her alma mater.
Many years later, terror would come in a different form; just weeks ago, the pro-Trump mob that attacked the Capitol in a failed attempt to stop the certification of Biden’s electoral win, broke into and ransacked her office.
Videos and photos showed books, files, and paperwork strewn across the floor and later yellow crime scene tape hung over the parliamentarian’s closed door.
Frumin, who had the job for 19 years and regularly speaks with MacDonough, told Insider that the rioters also smashed computers and printers, and left broken glass all over the place.
Just days before the attack, former Vice President Mike Pence had met for hours with MacDonough to go over his responsibilities in preparation for the joint session where he’d preside over the Electoral College vote tally.
Pence stuck to the script given to him by MacDonough on January 6, albeit under pressure from Trump and his allies to try to overturn the election results — a power the vice president didn’t have.
“The parliamentarian told him what he could do and what he couldn’t do and he followed that,” Cardin said. “It just tells you the power that the parliamentarian has.”
When the mob got inside the Capitol and lawmakers fled, it was MacDonough and one of her assistant parliamentarians who rescued the mahogany boxes filled with ballots. A picture that went viral on social media falsely attributed the actions to other people.
After working in another office for a while in the aftermath of the vandalism, MacDonough and her staff are now back in their original space just one floor below the Senate chamber.
‘Nothing but admiration’
If the pressure of the work grates on MacDonough, she doesn’t show it, according to multiple people who know her.
“She takes in a great deal of stuff and synthesizes it with great humanity and a great sense of humor,” Frumin said. “She applies her personality to a soul-crushing job and makes it a soulful job with her personality and her intellect.”
Frumin called her a “people person” who remembers the names and personal details of Capitol police officers, janitors, and even pages who are only working in the Capitol for a brief time.
MacDonough rarely speaks to the press and her office did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
In her 2018 commencement address, she described herself as a “creature of the Senate where an expedited process takes a whole week.”
In a hyper-partisan Washington, MacDonough has earned the admiration of both Democrats and Republicans, even though her rulings inevitably sink some policy ideas they’d hoped to pass. Four senators told Insider said they respected her and enjoyed working with her, and described her as fair and objective.
“She’s very pleasant, very smart, very calm in the midst of lots of pressure,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican. “When I presided I used to preside for three straight hours and we’d have nice conversations. There’s nothing but admiration for Elizabeth.”
A previous version of this story ran on February 25, 2021. Click here to read that version.
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