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A parliamentarian typically serves as an adviser on the proper conduct of a meeting. In the federal and state legislatures, the parliamentarian interprets the body’s rules and advises the presiding officer on the legislative process. In other organizations, the parliamentarian may be a formal or informal title for a person who advises on the proper conduct of a meeting. Professional parliamentarians also offer their services for conventions and special purpose meetings.
In the U.S. Congress, the parliamentarians of the House and Senate serve as formal, nonpartisan advisers to the Speaker of the House and presiding officer of the Senate respectively. Article I, Section 5, of the U.S. Constitution directs the Senate and House of Representatives to create their own rules of procedure. Over the years, the rules of the two chambers evolved to their present form and the rules committees of the two bodies have primary jurisdiction over rule changes. The House and Senate parliamentarians rule on questions of procedure with the assistance of a small staff of procedural experts. While their decisions are usually final, the members can vote to overrule the parliamentarian. State legislatures and national assemblies in other countries use parliamentarians in similar roles. The parliamentarian’s rulings can influence whether a provision of a bill may pass. In 2001, Senate Republican leaders actually fired the parliamentarian after a series of rulings unfavorable to the party.
Other Types of Organizations
Most citizen and student organizations have bylaws calling for an officer to serve as parliamentarian. Like their counterparts in Congress and state legislatures, they are responsible for ensuring the orderly conduct of meetings and advising the presiding officer on points of order.
Depending on the organization’s bylaws, it may be possible for the members or presiding officer of the organization to overrule a decision by the parliamentarian. This is an important power as the rules and the parliamentarian’s interpretation of the rules can affect who gets to speak and when, as well as which items the body will address and in which order. If a body does not have a designated parliamentarian, those duties will often fall to the presiding officer.
Roberts Rules of Order
Many organizations use Robert’s Rules of Order or modifications of those rules. Henry Martyn Robert, an army engineering officer, developed the original rules of order in 1876 after unsuccessfully conducting a church meeting with no ground rules. Consequentially, parliamentarians ought to understand the rules since the Council of the Robert's Rules Association suggests using the most recent edition to resolve questions of order not addressed in an organization’s bylaws. Parliamentarians can earn certification through both the American Institute of Parliamentarians and the National Association of Parliamentarians.
Finally, conferences that are not held regularly and other types of special meetings might not be governed by a specific set of bylaws. Furthermore, newly formed organizations always face the daunting task of writing bylaws. As Robert discovered, meetings will often fall into chaos without a set of ground rules governing the conduct of meetings. Certified parliamentarians can assist with the development of bylaws, serve as parliamentarian for conferences, workshops and other training for parliamentarians.
Chris McGann began writing professionally in 1991. His work has appeared in the "Upper Dauphin Sentinel" and the "Wellsboro Gazette." He blogs on Daily Kos and Congress Matters, focusing on congressional procedure and elections. McGann holds a Master of Arts in applied politics from American University.