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Who's Alan Frumin and why might he shape US health reform?

Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin becomes the top power broker on health reform if Democrats' 60-vote strategy fails.

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Like the Senate chaplain, the parliamentarian does not rotate out with a shift in party control. So far, promotions have come from within the Senate parliamentarian’s office. Only a handful of people in the world know the Senate well enough to do the job.

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Frumin, the current parliamentarian, grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y. He graduated from Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., with a double major in economics and political science, and Georgetown University’s Law School in Washington. His work as legal editor for the multivolume Deschler’s Precedents of the House of Representatives impressed the House parliamentarian, who recommended Frumin to the Senate parliamentarian.

Frumin “is an incredibly judicious, patient, bright man who has been given a job of enormous complexity and difficulty,” says Robert Dove, who worked with Frumin upon his arrival in 1977 until 2001.

In fact, Mr. Dove and Frumin have switched jobs three times. Frumin first became parliamentarian in 1987, replacing Dove after Democrats took over the Senate. When Republicans won back the majority, Dove was reappointed parliamentarian, and Frumin returned to the No. 2 job, with the title parliamentarian emeritus. He was reappointed parliamentarian in 2001, after Dove made some procedural calls that displeased then-majority leader Trent Lott (R).

“I was always a little bit concerned exactly who I worked for,” says Dove in a Monitor interview. “You do things in the name of the president of the Senate, who is the vice president of the United States. You conceive of yourself as working for the Senate – and Alan does. Not the majority party, but the Senate.”

War story from an ex-parliamentarian

In 1995, Dove made one of many tough calls, not unlike those Frumin is likely to face on healthcare. Republicans wanted to ban federal funding of abortions and use reconciliation to do it. Dove ruled against them. “In my view, that was not there to save money but to implement a huge social policy. It was knocked out of the bill,” Dove says, citing the so-called Byrd rule.

“But such calls are incredibly difficult, because you’re going into motive,” he adds. “It’s not just what a provision does, but why was it put there.”

His ruling did not please the majority, but that wasn’t his job. Like a good umpire, the parliamentarian must never be seen as favoring one side or the other or advising on strategy.

“You can never feed anyone information; you can never suggest questions that ought to be asked. You would destroy yourself quite quickly if you did,” Dove says. “All you can do is answer questions that are asked of you.”

Then he adds, “I’m so glad I’m not doing what Alan is doing right now. But he will do it well.”

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Affordable medical care: how other countries do it.
As the US struggles to overhaul its system, nations from Taiwan to Germany offer a few lessons – and warnings.

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