WASHINGTON — In the days after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, Elizabeth MacDonough donned a hazmat suit and returned to her ransacked office on the building’s first floor, grabbing what materials she would need to continue working with her staff elsewhere.
Soon after, MacDonough, the Senate’s procedural referee and rules enforcer, was back in the Capitol, pulling an all-nighter as senators ground through a 15-hour voting session to consider the blueprint for President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan. Instead of leaving once the measure passed before dawn, MacDonough and her staff aides stayed up to work, moving back into her office and making the final preparations for the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.
Now, MacDonough — a figure little known outside the Capitol but crucial to those who work there — has been thrust into the spotlight as a critical player in Democrats’ fight to keep Biden’s pandemic aid plan on track and intact. As the arbiter of strict Senate rules that limit what can be included in the package, MacDonough has become the subject of an intensive lobbying campaign by senators in both parties to bless their favored items, or nix those they oppose.
Studies and reports have been obtained, arguments drafted and tea leaves obsessively examined — all in a bid to persuade MacDonough, who will determine the fate of several key liberal provisions, including a federal minimum wage increase Biden has championed. The decision on the wage increase could come as early as Wednesday.
“She has listened attentively to our position. She’ll listen attentively, I’m sure, to the other side’s point of view,” Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the chairman of the Budget Committee and a chief advocate for the provision, said Tuesday. “We believe and hope she will rule in our direction.”
MacDonough’s outsize influence is a result of the decision by Democrats to use a fast-track budget process known as reconciliation to push through Biden’s stimulus plan. The tactic protects the package from a filibuster, allowing it to pass with only a simple majority vote, circumventing Republican opposition. But it also comes with stringent rules that require the components to meet certain budgetary standards — and it is up to the parliamentarian to rule on whether they do.
The process is a charged one for MacDonough, the first woman to hold the post, and her staff of two — also women — all of whom prefer to remain out of the public eye.
“She has integrity, intelligence and strength — and she’s going to need all three for what’s coming up,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
The parliamentarian declined a request for an interview, but has said that she sees her job as an institutional one, not a partisan one.
“I represent the interest of my unseen client, the institution of the Senate itself,” MacDonough said in 2018 during a commencement speech at her alma mater, Vermont Law School. “No matter who is in my office asking for assistance, I represent the Senate with its traditions of unfettered debate, protection of minority rights and equal power among the states.”
The most anticipated ruling from MacDonough could come as early as Wednesday, lawmakers and aides said, on whether the Democratic proposal to gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is permissible under the budget rules. Under the “Byrd Rule,” established by former Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a provision must affect federal spending or revenue to be included in a reconciliation measure.
With senators in both parties already mulling over possible amendments and changes to the $1.9 trillion relief proposal, which is set to pass the House at the end of the week, MacDonough’s determination could have significant consequences for the wage increase, as well as technical changes and potentially provisions related to pension funds and paid leave.
Having worked for the parliamentarian’s office in some capacity since 1999, MacDonough is no newcomer to intense legislative debates.But while the post of parliamentarian is often influential, MacDonough and her staff members have endured an extraordinary seven weeks, playing crucial roles as the Senate has staggered through the devastating assault on the Capitol, a second presidential impeachment, the growing pains of a new majority and now the grueling reconciliation process.
On Jan. 6, as the pro-Trump mob breached the Capitol and approached the Senate chamber, it was one of MacDonough’s aides who coordinated the removal of the mahogany boxes containing the Electoral College certificates that lawmakers had gathered to count and whisked them off with senators and staff members as they were being evacuated. The move ensured that lawmakers could complete their work later that night and formalize Biden’s victory.
During the impeachment proceeding this month, MacDonough spent hours on the Senate dais, advising Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., as he played the unprecedented role of presiding over the trial of a former president. She and her advisers have provided guidance to Democratic senators as they become accustomed — some of them for the first time, others for the first time in years — to overseeing Senate business as the new majority party.
MacDonough has served as parliamentarian since 2012, when she was named to the job under a Democratic majority. A civil servant who has never directly worked for a politician, she worked as a legislative reference assistant in the Senate library and then as an editor of the Congressional Record before being hired at the parliamentarian’s office in 1999.
“Referee, umpire, whatever word you want to use — they’re guided by the rules of the body as established by the body,” said Bob Stevenson, a retired longtime Republican aide who worked for the Senate Budget Committee and former Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, a former majority leader. “Just like a good referee in basketball or a good umpire in baseball would tell you the same thing: The best result is one where you remain anonymous.”
In her early days in the parliamentarian’s office, MacDonough honed her understanding of the basics under Byrd himself, who would frequently stop by to pepper her with procedural queries in what she would later describe in the 2018 speech as “a Socratic method on steroids” that offered “a humbling and horrible way to start every day.”
“I didn’t like you when you first started; I didn’t think you would amount to much,” MacDonough recalled Byrd telling her. “But oh my, how you have surprised me.”(As Democrats move forward with Biden’s economic plan with the budget reconciliation process, it now falls to MacDonough to enact Byrd’s rule. It is a high-stakes job; in 2001, the parliamentarian at the time, Robert Dove, was unceremoniously ousted from his position after Republican leaders took issue with his rulings.
The rule’s name lends itself to a number of bird-related puns commonly used to describe the stages of the reconciliation process. There is the “Byrd bath,” when senators can lodge objections to items they believe violate the rule, and MacDonough scrubs and analyzes them to make a judgment. Anything that does not survive the scrutiny is known as a “Byrd dropping,” and is removed from the legislation before it can advance.
In nearly a decade overseeing the office, MacDonough has become an increasingly public figure in the most pressure-filled and partisan moments in the Senate, particularly during the reconciliation process.
She challenged key provisions in the original 2017 proposal put forward by Senate Republicans to dismantle parts of the Affordable Care Act, and at least one Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, floated the prospect of overruling her as part of an ultimately unsuccessful bid to repeal major planks of the landmark health care law. The public exposure from a year that she later called “a procedural juggernaut replete with difficult statutory analysis” led to calls for her removal, hate mail and some threats.
“Still, I have to tell you that I love my job, ” MacDonough said in 2018. “As a senator said to me recently, ‘If last year didn’t make you retire, you’re never going to go.’”Democrats have so far declined to say whether they will try to overrule her decision if it goes against them.
Even though members of both parties have sometimes chafed at her rulings, she has maintained bipartisan respect — and few senators want to get on her bad side.
“She has a good way of keeping us all in suspense,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “People have confidence in her judgment, but I’m sure she’s under enormous pressure. That’s part of the job.”