Senate Republicans have begun a campaign to cast doubt on the Senate Parliamentarian and his capacity to impartially handle the reconciliation process for passing health care fixes. Several lawmakers and GOP officials told Politico that Alan Frumin is too close to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and thus predisposed to rule in his favor when reconciliation is raised.
It's a bold gambit to "work the ref" before the game has begun and it reflects some chutzpah on the part of the GOP, considering the recent history of the position.
Frumin was elevated to the post by Republican leadership in 2001, in part because he had a reputation for adhering to institutional mores rather than personal ideology. At the time, Majority Leader Trent Lott said he was confident Frumin could do the job, having known him for many years.
"It's going to be pretty hard for anybody to be too critical of it," Lott said of the appointment.
For Republicans to now raise concerns that Democratic leadership has compromised Frumin's objectivity is even more peculiar considering the GOP's antics leading up to his hiring.
In May 2001, Republican leadership fired Frumin's predecessor, Robert Dove, after he issued a series of rulings that complicated their efforts to pass aspects of the Bush tax cuts and budget proposals through reconciliation. Dove had decided it was inappropriate for money intended for natural disaster relief to be considered through budgetary rules -- and he was summarily axed.
It was not the first time Dove had been fired from the post. In a Washington Post op-ed at the time, Washington attorney Jeffrey Smith noted that: "The Democrats have also fired the parliamentarian. When he became majority leader in 1987, Robert Byrd fired Dove. When the Republicans regained the Senate in 1994, they brought Dove back as parliamentarian."
The point still seems valid. Despite recent GOP complaints about Frumin's impartiality, the fact remains that Senate parliamentarians are always subject to a certain element of political influence. For starters, their rulings aren't final. The Vice President, as president of the Senate, has the authority to override them, though it rarely comes to that. And, as history shows, congressional leadership can simply dismiss someone whose decisions they don't like.
"The first power and significant rule goes to the parliamentarian," explained Norm Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a congressional process expert. "The parliamentarian will make a ruling about whether provisions are eligible for reconciliation... But the vice president is the presiding officer. He is the president of the Senate and the president of the Senate takes the parliamentarian's advise into account and then makes a ruling. That ruling is subject to appeal and that appeal is decided by majority vote. Often what happens is, if the party in power doesn't like the direction [in which] the parliamentarian is going, as Bob Dove can tell you, they fire the parliamentarian."