News & Politics

The Senate Parliamentarian Could Tank Parts of the Climate Bill. Who Is She?

Elizabeth MacDonough is from Chevy Chase and went to GW

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth MacDonough.

The future of the Biden administration’s historic climate bill is now in the hands of one person: Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, the nonpartisan referee who will check the legislation against the Senate’s intricate budget reconciliation rules. If she clears the bill as-is, then it will go to the Senate (where the deal now apparently has the votes to pass). But if MacDonough flags any issues, lawmakers will have to revise and re-negotiate the problem areas—which might be tricky, depending on the extent of the changes required. 

Today, MacDonough is combing through the bill. Here are five things to know as we wait.

She’s been in the hot seat before

While the Senate Parliamentarian’s office may sound like a snooze, the job has placed MacDonough at the heart of many explosive political moments. In 2000, as an assistant Senate parliamentarian, MacDonough advised on ballot counting procedures in Bush v. Gore. She says she was also consulted on the Terri Schaivo case. Then, in 2015 and in 2017, she played a key role in quashing the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She helped Chief Justice John Roberts navigate Senate rules in preparation for both of President Trump’s impeachment trials. And in 2021, she disappointed Democrats by ruling that immigration reform couldn’t be done under budget reconciliation, and that they couldn’t include a $15 minimum wage in their Covid relief legislation.

She’s known as a straight shooter

MacDonough has taken flack from both parties for dashing their legislative ambitions (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez once said, “I’m not going to let the damn Parliamentarian tell me how to do my job”). But MacDonough’s work has also won bipartisan praise. “I’ve been here with many, many parliamentarians,” Senator Patrick Leahy told Politico in 2020. “All were good. But she’s the best.” Senator John Cornyn said that MacDonough is “tough” and that “she calls them straight down the middle.” MacDonough herself told a reporter that her job is to be neutral—she’s “not a party apparatchik.” 

Her office was ransacked on January 6th

When rioters seized the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, they made a stop in the Senate Parliamentarian’s office; a video of the aftermath shows displaced furniture and papers littering the floor. That same day, as rioters were breaching the building, members of MacDonough’s staff were credited with saving boxes of Electoral College ballots from the rioters, who apparently wanted to burn them as part of their efforts to overturn the election.

She is the first female Senate Parliamentarian 

The Office of the Senate Parliamentarian was established in 1935, and prior to MacDonough, there were six other Parliamentarians—all men. MacDonough took the helm in 2012. While initially appointed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, MacDonough was kept on when Mitch McConnell became the Majority Leader in 2014. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Dick Durbin celebrated her historic appointment, with Durbin noting that he looks forward to working with her even if her rulings disappoint him.

She has deep roots in the DC area

MacDonough is from Chevy Chase and went to George Washington University. After serving as a Senate floor staffer, she attended Vermont Law School, worked briefly for a judge in New Jersey, and then moved back to the District to join the Senate Parliamentarian’s office in 1999. According to a 2018 bio from her law school, she lives in Arlington with her Labrador retriever, Basket.

Sylvie McNamara
Staff Writer