She's the powerful yet little-known referee with the 'hardest job' on Capitol Hill, and she's shaping Trump's impeachment trial and Biden's agenda

  • Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate’s nonpartisan referee, keeps the chamber in line behind the scenes.
  • But she’s been pushed into the spotlight as she advises on the impeachment trial and the stimulus.
  • 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, and now over whether to convict an ex-president of inciting an insurrection.

But Elizabeth MacDonough is the quiet force making sure that senators — all 100 of them — are kept in line. She’s the Senate’s nonpartisan parliamentarian and one of the most powerful attorneys in Washington, although she’s rarely photographed in public or on the Senate floor.

“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.  

As the country followed the first day of the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump on their screens, 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 are 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 has to follow when it comes to motions, objections, and procedures. And MacDonough is there to help make sure of it in the coming days, just like she did about a year ago during Trump’s first impeachment trial.

As the Senate parliamentarian since 2012, MacDonough — or anyone else who holds that job — is expected to be nonpartisan. She sparred with the Democratic minority in 2013 over Senate rule changes as much as she did in 2017 when Republicans were in charge.

Now as Biden settles into his role as the new US president, MacDonough will play a pivotal role in parts of his agenda.

The 54-year-old already has her plate full given that the Senate also is juggling a fast-track of Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill. The stimulus passage will be trickier than typical legislation because Democrats are using a process called budget reconciliation, which carries strict and complex rules MacDonough will have to help interpret.

She also may get the final word on whether Democrats are able to hike the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by including it in a must-pass stimulus package.

The parliamentarian’s office will help guide senators on what’s allowed or forbidden in the stimulus by listening to arguments from both Democrats and Republicans, researching precedents, and using long-standing rules.

Saving Electoral College votes from insurrectionists

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-Sen. Robert 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.

“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. 

Alan Frumin, who retired from his job as parliamentarian in 2012 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,” Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland told Insider. “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. 

The events of January 6 were unparalleled in the parliamentarian’s 86-year history, but the job generally is high-pressure. 

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. Frumin, who had the job for 19 years, 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 stimulus package

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,” Cardin said. “That advice can help us, not to circumvent the Senate rules, but to conform to the Senate rules.” 

In the coming days and weeks she’ll be advising on the complex rules of reconciliation, an experience she had during the unsuccessful attempts by Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and in 2017 as they passed their tax cuts.  

Cardin told Insider that Democrats were already in “constant communication” with the parliamentarian’s office about the $1.9 trillion relief package.

Reconciliation is a workaround that will allow Democrats to pass their bill in the Senate with a simple majority of 51 votes — including Vice President Kamala Harris as a tie-breaker — rather than the 60 typically needed to break a filibuster. 

At the same time, the process comes with strict rules about when the Senate can and can’t use it, including for the $15 minimum wage provision, one of the biggest lightning rods in Biden’s stimulus plan.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters on Tuesday that he was working with MacDonough’s office to clarify the rules on the minimum wage issue.

MacDonough will decide whether the minimum wage change violates the “Byrd Rule,” which is named for its author, the late Byrd of West Virginia, whom she talked about in the 2018 commencement speech. The rule says 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. 

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 Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California recently tweeted that Harris should step in to help pass a $15 minimum wage even if the parliamentarian rules that it cannot be included in reconciliation. 

MacDonough hasn’t reached a verdict on the issue yet, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki has indicated Biden’s team would likely go along with the parliamentarian’s ruling.

“I think our view is that the parliamentarian is who is chosen typically to make a decision in a nonpartisan manner in terms of what can be included in a package that goes through reconciliation, the proper process for this to journey through,” Psaki said during a February 8 White House briefing.  

‘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.”

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