Parliamentarians Know the Rules

Last week Americans got a lesson in the important role parliamentarians play in ensuring that organizations do things according to their established rules. Elizabeth MacDonough, parliamentarian of the U.S. Senate, ruled that a proposal to raise the minimum wage could not be part of a COVID-19 relief bill because including it would violate Senate rules. As parliamentarian, her job is to be an expert on the Senate’s complex rules and to render non-partisan recommendations to ensure that actions are legal and accurate.

Although seldom seen in the spotlight, parliamentarians are important because they are responsible for ensuring a fair, democratic, and effective decision-making process. They must have an in-depth understanding of multiple accepted codes of practice such as Robert’s Rules of Order or Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure and be experts on the specific rules of a group’s articles of incorporation, bylaws, and procedures. On campus, becoming a parliamentarian would be a useful adjunct to the skills of chiefs of staff, top executive assistants, or for people who work with boards of trustees, university foundations, or alumni associations.

Parliamentarians don’t just operate in the non-profit world. Corporations and entities such as the NCAA often employ them to be present during board of directors’ meetings to be certain rules are followed so that decisions made by elected officials, whether they are corporate leaders running an annual shareholders meeting, officers of local civic groups, or members of boards of trustees, will hold up under scrutiny.

Becoming a parliamentarian doesn’t require a specific degree, but it does demand experience in working with democratic bodies, completing an intense course of study, passing an examination, adhering to a code of ethics, and possessing a talent for memorizing and recalling detail.

The American Institute of Parliamentarians has an extensive web site of resources including courses and information about how to attain the Certified Professional Parliamentarian credential. Of particular use at this moment is a document they have posted entitled, “Opinions for Electronic Meetings,” that addresses how to handle numerous of the unusual governance situations many groups are currently facing.

Other training resources include the National Association of Parliamentarians and several U.S. universities, including some that offer classes online as part of continuing education programs.