How two little-known offices will shape healthcare reform
As efforts to pass healthcare reform progress, more responsibilities are being placed on the Congressional Budget Office and the Senate Parliamentarian's Office – two institutions famous for their devotion to fairness and attention to detail.
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“My frustration with CBO is that our committee meetings with CBO aren’t open to the public and press,” says Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon, referring to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s meetings with CBO director Douglas Elmendorf on healthcare reform. “The public should know the thinking that goes into those cost estimates.”Skip to next paragraph
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The Senate Parliamentarian's Office
The office of the Senate parliamentarian – now, the parliamentarian plus three assistants – was created in 1935 to keep track of Senate rules and precedents. The job requires a formidable memory, mastery of those rules and precedents, and absolute discretion.
The process of budget reconciliation – the rules-heavy vehicle expected to be used to move fixes on healthcare reform through the Senate without a filibuster – gives the parliamentarian even greater responsibilities.
By one of the rules of reconciliation, each part of a provision must meet the requirement of reducing the budget. The parliamentarian will advise the chair whether the healthcare fixes do. Indeed, once the parliamentarian has the CBO scores, he must go through legislation paragraph by paragraph to make sure every provision meets that standard.
“It takes years because there is no training that leads you to that office. All of the training is in that office,” says former Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove.
“It is only in that office that the precedents of the Senate are kept, and your job is to know them, and there are thousands of them. Only in that office do you have access to the Senate floor on a regular basis, and only in that office will you be approached by both sides on every parliamentary issue that occurs. Based on those things, you will learn to be a parliamentarian,” he adds.
After 10 years in the parliamentarian’s office, Alan Frumin was appointed to the top job by Democrats in 1987, dismissed in 1995 when Republicans took back control of the Senate, then reappointed in 2001 after Republican majority leader Trent Lott dismissed Mr. Dove for rulings not to his liking. Recently, Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina accused Frumin of partisan bias, but later apologized on the floor.
“If the parliamentarian gets dragged into the partisan battles and becomes seen as the tool of one party or another, it damages an important part of the institution,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.
“The new media environment amplifies the importance of these two bodies [CBO and Parliamentarian],” he adds. “With the increasing number of sources of information people can get because of the web, it’s doubling important for the public to have at least one source for these congressionalrules and numbers that they can turn to.”