When the United States Senate was called into recess on January 6 at 2:13 p.m., Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough stood from her seat behind the dais, adjusted her mask, and looked toward the door where plainclothes policemen were rushing Senator Chuck Grassley to safety. Three mahogany boxes containing the ballots certifying the results of the 2020 election were stacked on a nearby table. To the side, a nervous policeman fidgeted, his hands flitting up toward the gun holstered inside his suit jacket. When the C-SPAN cameras cut away from the scene, those mahogany boxes were still there.
The insurrectionists were already inside the U.S. Capitol. They would soon be on the floor of the Senate. But when they finally entered the chamber and stood behind the dais, the mahogany boxes were gone. It was MacDonough’s staffers who had the presence of mind to get them out of harm’s way. Later, after the melee had ended and the Capitol was cleared of rioters, the boxes and the ballots were returned to their place.
MacDonough did no cable news hits afterward; she didn’t even discuss with the press the matter of keeping the ballots out of the hands of those who were seeking to halt the certification of the election. Much of the reporting around the removal of the boxes failed to credit her or her staff directly. Any other lifelong Capitol Hill occupant would have been on CNN and MSNBC that night. They’d likely be handed a book deal by the next morning. Elizabeth MacDonough just went back to work. Her reticence to stand in the spotlight extends to this article; MacDonough did not respond to The New Republic’s request for comment.
But if MacDonough’s role in preserving the election results eluded attention, the same cannot be said for the work she’s had to undertake since President Joe Biden was sworn in. As the Biden administration has set up shop and a thin Democratic Senate majority has taken up the arduous task of moving the party’s agenda through the warren of the legislature, MacDonough’s role as Senate parliamentarian has garnered a greater share of the media’s attention, and as the key arbiter of Senate rules, she has at times taken criticism from the very Democrats who had reason to be grateful for her professionalism when democracy was hanging in the balance.
During Biden’s first hundred days, MacDonough became a massive figure in the way that only exists in Washington. She ruled in early April that Democrats can pass a second reconciliation bill during 2021; that ruling kick-started a negotiation process that we are still enduring. Biden said in mid-May that he is willing to pass an infrastructure bill without Republican support, though that will still require all Senate Democrats falling in line. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has also been lobbying Biden to consider passing an infrastructure bill through reconciliation. K Street’s latest cottage industry among lobbyists is specializing in reconciliation legislation, an area that surged in demand following MacDonough’s April ruling.
This week, the mettle of Washington’s reconciliation experts will be newly tested. As Bloomberg’s Erik Wasson reported on Wednesday, the parliamentarian made it clear that Democrats’ second bite of the reconciliation apple will come with some caveats. In her ruling, MacDonough clarified that “to revise a budget resolution, such as the fiscal 2021 resolution used to pass the Covid-19 relief bill in March, the measure must go through committee and have floor amendment votes,” making a revision at least as arduous a task as drawing up a new budget from scratch. Moreover, MacDonough said, any budget revision would have to be justified on the basis of some “new economic downturn.”
For Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, this adds considerable complications to getting an ambitious agenda passed. And it may rekindle some of the anger that Democrats projected in MacDonough’s direction back in February, after she ruled that a raise in the federal minimum wage could not be included in the pandemic relief bill. That decision led to some Democrats calling for her dismissal, while others urged her ruling to be disregarded outright. It’s not often that a Senate parliamentarian is the target of such frustration or fury; rarer still to see one lose their job for doing their duty. Suddenly, however, MacDonough had become something that she otherwise seems to prefer to avoid being: interesting.
MacDonough is one of the most powerful lawyers in the country, imbued with the power to make rulings that have sweeping consequences for the entire country. The senators and colleagues who know her best, however, describe MacDonough as one of the most personable people in Washington. Senators from both parties frequently approach the dais to have short conversations with her, exchanging fist-bumps over the desk. The bipartisan support MacDonough enjoys is stunning in the current political era. As Senator Ted Cruz told The New Republic, “She’s got a lot of experience and credibility. There have been times when Republicans have been unhappy with her rulings, there have been times when Democrats have been unhappy with her rulings. That’s probably a good sign for a parliamentarian.” Senator Elizabeth Warren echoed those remarks, saying, “I think she takes her cues from an umpire in a baseball game. She calls it the way she sees it regardless of what other noise is going on in the stadium.” A decade into the Tea Party era of partisanship-at-all-costs, MacDonough may be the only truly nonpartisan creature of Washington.