Parliamentary Rule: The U.S. Senate Parliamentarian and Institutional Constraints on Legislator Behavior

Journal of Legislative Studies: Volume 20(3) (2014): 380-405


This article analyses the extent to which institutional rules constrain member behaviour in the United States Senate by examining the evolution of its parliamentarian. Interestingly, the US Senate parliamentarian has received surprisingly little scholarly attention given the important role she performs in the legislative process. The subsequent analysis thus provides a new understanding of the parliamentarian’s role in the legislative process and the interplay between institutional rules and member behaviour in the Senate. To this end, the following analysis is situated within the context of the two primary theoretical approaches to understanding how institutional rules constrain member behaviour: path dependency and majoritarianism. These contrasting approaches provide expectations about the extent to which members will defer to the parliamentarian’s interpretation of Senate rules rather than exercising their own discretionary control over those rules. Examining the evolving relationship between the parliamentarian and individual members affirms the centrality of institutional rules as a constraint on member behaviour over the past several decades. Yet such an examination also yields two surprising, and potentially contradictory, observations. First, individual senators in both parties have increasingly deferred to the parliamentarian to interpret the Senate’s rules. This is surprising given that the Senate has simultaneously become more individualistic, partisan, and ideological over the same period. Second, the majority party has recently disregarded the norm of parliamentary constraint reflected in past practice and demonstrated a willingness to ignore Senate rules when doing so was necessary to achieve legislative success. This could signify a potential shift in how majorities view the constraints imposed by Senate rules if current trends of legislative dysfunction continue.