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Longtime House Parliamentarian Wickham Stepping Down

September 17, 2020 by Dan McCue
The empty rotunda of the Capitol, Aug. 5, 2020. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – Tom Wickham is stepping down as parliamentarian of the House of Representatives at the end of the month, and will be replaced by Jason Smith, his current deputy parliamentarian.

In announcing the change, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., described Wickham, who is only the fifth person to be appointed Parliamentarian of the House since the formal establishment of the office, as a “master of House rules and procedure.”

She also credited the Iowa native’s “legal acumen and absolute professionalism” with strengthening the House and benefiting “the American people whom we serve.”

“In his 25 years of distinguished service,” she said in a statement, “Tom upheld the great Constitutional underpinnings of the historic role of Parliamentarian with excellence and integrity.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also thanked Wickham for his service, calling him “a true expert on House rules and Parliamentary procedure.”

“He always gives his advice thoughtfully, and often with equal parts historical background and humor,” Hoyer said. “Tom is steadfast in his commitment to the institution and the people who serve in it. His calm demeanor has been a steadying presence in the House that will be missed. After 25 years of service to the House, I wish him all the best in his retirement.”

Wickham previously held the roles of assistant parliamentarian and deputy parliamentarian. It was former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who elevated Wickham to the top parliamentarian job in 2012.

Both the House and Senate have an Office of the Parliamentarian to provide expert advice and assistance on questions relating to the meaning and application of that chamber’s legislative rules, precedents, and practices.

The speaker began naming a parliamentarian in 1927; the Senate first formally recognized its parliamentarian in 1935.

The responsibilities of the two offices are similar. These derive from the need of Representatives and Senators, and their staff, for access to confidential and nonpartisan expertise regarding the intricacies of the legislative process.

The parliamentarians and their assistants/deputies make their knowledge available to all members on the floor during plenary sessions and from their offices at other times.

The most visible service that each office provides is in advising the member presiding over House or Senate plenary sessions as to the appropriate procedure to be followed, the appropriate way in which to phrase any statements the chair needs to make, and the appropriate responses by the chair to parliamentary inquiries and points of order.

Whenever the House or Senate is in session, the parliamentarian or one of the office’s deputies/assistants is present on the floor at all times. In the House, the parliamentarian on duty sits or stands near the right hand of the member who is presiding. In the Senate, the parliamentarian on duty is always seated at the rostrum immediately below the presiding officer’s desk.

The role sometimes requires them to serve as referee when things get heated between Democrats and Republicans on the floor.

In 2019, Wickham ruled that Pelosi’s floor remarks calling President Trump’s tweets about four first-term women of color “racist” was out of order. The House, led by Pelosi’s party, then voted to overrule Wickham and her remarks were allowed to remain in the Congressional Record.

Both Pelosi and Hoyer also had praise for Wickham’s replacement.

“Jason brings outstanding experience, a brilliant legal mind and great rigor of judgment to this historic responsibility, and I am confident that he will uphold and advance the proud traditions of this critical office,” Pelosi said. “As we transition to a new Parliamentarian, we do so committed to fostering diversity in the running of this office and its future leadership.”

Hoyer agreed.

“I look forward to working with Jason Smith in his new role as the next House Parliamentarian,” the Majority Leader said. “He has the knowledge and experience that this role requires, and I know that he will provide sound judgment in the tradition of this office.”

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