Alan Frumin is the chief parliamentarian for the United States Senate, a man you wouldn't recognize in a job you've never heard of.

Share story


Alan Frumin is the chief parliamentarian for the United States Senate, a man you wouldn’t recognize in a job you’ve never heard of.

But he could blow up President Obama’s whole health-care bill.

Whether the landmark health-insurance overhaul flies or falls, it will be due in no small part to this 63-year-old master of minutiae whose decisions could reshape one-sixth of the U.S. economy, not to mention the political fates of dozens of Democrats.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

His job is to interpret two centuries of arcane Senate rules and precedents and decide what is procedurally correct. To C-SPAN viewers, he is the anonymous fixture at the desk below the Senate dais, whispering instructions to whoever is running the show.

Most of the time, his role is pretty low-key. When rookie senators utter with confidence things like “The motion is out of order,” it’s usually because Al Frumin just told them what to say.

Frumin had become a major preoccupation for senators, as they tried to divine his views on whether Obama must sign a health bill into law before Democrats can use the filibuster-proof budgetary tactic known as reconciliation to make changes to it. In days to come, there will be a slew of Republican challenges to reconciliation. Whatever Frumkin allows can pass with 51 votes, which Democrats have. What he rules out needs 60 votes, which they don’t.

Republicans bent on blocking the bill will attempt to stall with something known as a “vote-o-rama,” back-to-back roll-call votes forced after 20 hours’ debate. It is the picture of congressional chaos. All 100 senators, plus staff, swarm the floor for hours, camping out in hallways. The longest one, after a budget debate in 2008, involved 44 rapid-fire votes over two days.

There are no limits on the number of amendments that can be offered, only the stamina of Republicans who aim to block the bill. If the Democrats want to force them to stop, they will need Frumin on their side. Or they’ll have to overrule him, which would look bad.

The hard decisions will be made in meetings known as “Byrd baths.” That’s because much of the process is dictated by a rule written by Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, which says every amendment passed must be deemed relevant to the budget deficit by the parliamentarian. Amendments kicked out are known as “Byrd droppings.”

Technically, Frumin’s decisions are not binding. But Senate leaders almost never overrule the parliamentarian, so he will effectively have the final word.

“He’s basically the defense, the prosecution, the judge, the jury and the hangman in this scenario,” said Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, senior Republican on the Budget Committee, whose staff has been meeting with Frumin on reconciliation matters for months. “It all comes down to him.”

That makes some Republicans uncomfortable. Gregg calls Frumin “a very fair and straightforward guy in a very difficult job.”

Other Republicans are busy painting Frumin as in the tank for the Democrats, while Democrats insist he’s an honest broker.

Making headlines is new

That’s why Frumin, who has been doing this kind of work in obscurity for 33 years, is suddenly making headlines: “The Man Who May Decide Health Care.” “The Most Important Man in America.”

This sort of attention is a big change for Frumin, whose last on-the-record interview appears to have been with Congressional Quarterly. That was 22 years ago, and he’s not about to start talking now.

“I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup,” one leadership aide said.

New York magazine scoured Google images looking for clues about the man who could decide health care, and came up with this: “Frumin has a mustache, and doesn’t like giving interviews. He traveled to Germany in 2006 and India in 2008, and attended Barack Obama’s inauguration, as well as his White House luau. … Sometimes he wears cutoff jean shorts.”

No wonder Frumin is keeping a low profile. Even people who have known him for decades know little more than the bare bones of his personal life. (Attended Colgate University in upstate New York, then Georgetown Law; married lawyer Jill Meryl in 1981, has one daughter, lives in Maryland … )

Frumin, who is paid $167,000 a year, is a registered independent, voting records show.

Parliamentarians are appointed by the party in power; Frumin, who joined the office as an assistant in 1977, is the only parliamentarian to have been installed in the top job by both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats put him there in 1987 when Byrd was majority leader; in 2001, he was reinstalled by Republican Trent Lott.

The parliamentarian’s job requires years of apprenticeship, and the work is so obscure that few people in Washington can do it. For much of his career, Frumin has alternated with Robert Dove, who learned the hard way what can happen to a parliamentarian who irks a Senate leader. He was fired by Lott after advising Republicans that they could not add a $5 billion emergency allocation to the budget. That Dove called it “a slush fund” probably did not help.

“I said, ‘You can’t do that,’ ” Dove recalled, “and I was let go that very afternoon.”

The exceedingly cautious Frumin does not worry about a similar fate, his defenders say. But questions about his integrity do seem to upset him. Tom Daschle, the former Democratic leader in the Senate, said Frumin was “extremely sensitive to any charge of favoritism,” which could be why Republicans are making the claim.

“They know it gets his goat,” Daschle said.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma complained last Christmas that Frumin was “calling balls and strikes” in the Democrats’ favor. Coburn tried to delay the December health-care vote by insisting that Senate clerks read a 767-page amendment out loud. Frumin let Democrats withdraw the amendment; the reading stopped. After a terse exchange of letters with the parliamentarian, Coburn is still fuming.

“I thought he got that wrong,” Coburn said, “and I still think that.”

Coburn and Frumin are likely to cross paths again; Coburn plans to offer unlimited amendments to the health bill in an attempt to bog down the process.

Pride in being fair

Democrats call GOP attacks on Frumin a desperation tactic — “working the ref,” was how some put it.

If parliamentarians pride themselves on anything, it’s fairness. They refuse staff perks, don’t go to parties and refrain from voting in primaries to avoid revealing their political leanings.

The post was created in 1937, and Charles Watkins held it until he was something like 85, surviving four party changes without once getting fired. Then in the 1970s, Congress expanded the parliamentarian’s duties. In one debate over when to vote on a resolution, Dove was asked to decide whether Marines in Lebanon were in imminent danger. “I thought at the time, ‘This is way above my pay grade,’ ” he recalled. “I decided they were. … A lot of members didn’t like that.”

As the job got harder, assistant parliamentarians were added — three now work with Frumin. They huddle up, make a decision and stick to it. If the chief gets fired, the next in line takes his place, and generally issues the identical decision.

They take to the floor in shifts to stay sharp, like lifeguards at a pool; they work from books and institutional memory. A while back, the electronics-averse Senate let them have a laptop in the chamber. (They packed it with graphite so no one would be bothered by the beeps.)

Washington loves superlatives and tends to believe the flap du jour is the worst in history. In truth, parliamentarians have been in the thick of it before — the 1964 civil-rights legislation with the 57-day filibuster, President Clinton’s impeachment trial (Frumin was there) — more loyal to the Senate as an institution than the party that happens to run it.

Now, as Democrats scramble for a way to bring the health-care bill home, they are diving deep into procedural and parliamentary arcana that are Frumin’s to guard.

“It’s hard, but it’s satisfying,” Dove explained. “When we left at the end of the day, we could look each other in the eye knowing that, frankly, we had probably pleased no one in the Senate, making enemies right and left. But there was the satisfaction of having done what we thought was right.

“I’m confident it will be the same for Alan,” he said, but confessed: “I’m really glad I’m not there.”

Compiled from Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Associated Press reports

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.