During the impeachment process this month, Ms MacDonough spent hours on the Senate dais, advising Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, as he played the unprecedented role of presiding over the trial of a former president. She and her advisers provided advice to Democratic senators as they got used – some for the first time, others for the first time in years – to overseeing Senate affairs as a new majority party.
Ms MacDonough has been a parliamentarian since 2012, when she was appointed to the post with a Democratic majority. A civil servant who had never worked directly for a politician, she worked as a legislative reference assistant at the Senate library and then as editor-in-chief of the Congressional Record before being hired in the parliamentarian’s office in 1999.
“Umpire, umpire, whatever word you want to use – they’re guided by the rules of the body as set by the body,” said Bob Stevenson, a longtime retired Republican aide who worked for the Senate Budget Committee and former Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader. “Just like a good basketball umpire or a good baseball umpire would tell you the same thing: the best result is the one where you stay anonymous.”
In her early days in the parliamentarian’s office, Ms MacDonough honed her understanding of basic principles under the guidance of Mr Byrd himself, who frequently stopped to ask her procedural questions in what she would later describe in the 2018 talk as “a Socratic method on steroids” which offered “a humiliating and horrible way to start each day. “
“I didn’t like you when you started; I didn’t think it would mean much, ”recalls Ms. MacDonough, Mr. Byrd told her. “But oh my God, how you surprised me.”
As Democrats move forward with Mr. Biden’s economic plan with the budget reconciliation process, it is now up to Ms. MacDonough to enact Mr. Byrd’s government. This is high stakes work; in 2001, then-parliamentarian Robert B. Dove was unceremoniously ousted from office after Republican leaders challenged his rulings.
The name of the rule lends itself to a number of bird-related puns commonly used to describe the stages of the reconciliation process. There is the “Byrd Bath,” where Senators can file objections to items they believe break the rule, and Ms. MacDonough cleans and analyzes them for judgment. Anything that does not survive the exam is known as “Byrd drop” and is removed from the legislation before it can move forward.