Parliamentarian of the House of Representatives
Overview of the Office of the Parliamentarian
Parliamentary procedure in the House is governed by a commitment to stand by precedent, known as the principle of stare decisis. This principle ensures that the House conducts business in a consistent and reliable way. The lawyers and clerks in the Office of the Parliamentarian compile the parliamentary precedents that guide the House on questions of legislative procedure.
To ensure the record of precedents stays current, every two years the Parliamentarian publishes the House Rules and Manual, a one volume digest that covers two centuries worth of parliamentary practice in the House. The Parliamentarian also publishes the brochure How Our Laws Are Made; the multi-volume Precedents; and a condensed compilation of parliamentary precedent, House Practice.
More About the Office of the Parliamentarian
A Parliamentarian has been appointed by the Speaker in every Congress since 1927. In the 95th Congress the House formally established an Office of the Parliamentarian to be managed by a nonpartisan Parliamentarian appointed by the Speaker (2 U.S.C. 287). The compilation and distribution of the precedents of the House are authorized by law (2 U.S.C. 28 et seq.). The current Parliamentarian is Thomas J. Wickham Jr. He succeeds John V. Sullivan (2004-2012), Charles W. Johnson III (1994–2004), William Holmes Brown (1974–1994), and Lewis Deschler (1928–1974).
The parliamentary law of the House of Representatives emanates from the Constitution, specifically article I, section 5. These rules include not only the standing rules adopted from Congress to Congress but also Jefferson’s Manual. They also include rules enacted as law and special rules adopted from time to time. On this foundation rests a body of precedent established by decisions of presiding officers on actual parliamentary questions or by long custom and tradition.
The Parliamentarian is appointed by the Speaker without regard to political affiliation. The Office of the Parliamentarian, and its subsidiary Office of Compilation of Precedents, comprise lawyers and clerks who provide nonpartisan assistance on legislative and parliamentary procedure to the Speaker, presiding officers, and the House.
The Principle of Stare Decisis
The overarching role of the Office of the Parliamentarian is to strive for consistency in parliamentary analysis by attempting to apply pertinent precedent to each procedural question. In resolving questions of order, the Speaker and other presiding officers of the House adhere to the jurisprudential principle of stare decisis—a commitment to stand by earlier decisions. This fidelity to precedent promotes analytic consistency and procedural predictability and thereby fosters legitimacy in parliamentary practice. The commitment of the House to stand by its procedural decisions requires rigor concerning what constitutes precedent. In the parliamentary context, the term does not refer to a mere instance in which something occurred or was suffered; rather, it refers to a decision or order actually disposing of a question of order.
Compilation of Precedents
The compilation of the parliamentary precedents of the House is as important as any other function of the Office of the Parliamentarian. For each procedural decision made on the floor of the House, the Parliamentarian extracts the proceedings from the daily Congressional Record and writes a parliamentary syllabus. These “headnotes” must be precise, stating the real substance of the decision and its legal rationale in suitably narrow terms. To ensure a current digest of these matters, the Parliamentarian biennially publishes a House Rules and Manual. For the longer term, the Parliamentarian compiles the most salient precedents for formal, scholarly publication. These precedents presently fill 28 volumes comprising thousands of decisions over the 224 years of parliamentary practice in the House. To bridge the span between a digest of decisions and formally published precedents, the Parliamentarian also publishes House Practice, a condensed compilation of procedures of current application. The Parliamentarian also prepares the brochure entitled How Our Laws Are Made for public distribution.
See also CRS Report – The Office of the Parliamentarian in the House and Senate (RS20544) May 2, 2017