Discussing Lawmaking with Former House Parliamentarian Tom Wickham
Watch as the Co-Directors of the Center for Effective Lawmaking interview Tom Wickham on lawmaking effectiveness, what advice he would give to new members of Congress today, as well as trends and changes he’s noticed over the years.
Mr. Tom Wickham, former Parliamentarian of the U.S. House of Representatives, serves as senior vice president of State & Local Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Wickham leads the Chamber’s new initiative that monitors state and local policy developments and coordinates state and local policy advocacy strategies within the existing Chamber framework. As a nonpartisan House official for over 25 years, Mr. Wickham provided essential guidance to leadership, committees, and members as part of the development and execution of legislative strategy. In leading an office that reviewed every measure that came before the House, he has a command of a broad range of subject matters covering all aspects of government policy. During numerous high-profile legislative events, Mr. Wickham counseled speakers of the House, vice presidents, and countless members and senators on their constitutional and statutory responsibilities.
As editor of many procedural manuals and practice books, Mr. Wickham’s scholarship on the Constitution and the rules of the House have been recognized around the world.
He has represented the U.S. in dozens of countries and parliaments, including multiple delegation trips to Europe and Africa. His editorial credits include the House Rules and Manual, House Practice, and the Precedents of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Mr. Wickham’s expertise is recognized by national leaders of both parties. Upon his retirement as parliamentarian in 2020, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “Tom Wickham is a master of House rules and procedure, whose incisive legal acumen and absolute professionalism have strengthened the People’s House and benefited the American people whom we serve. In his 25 years of distinguished service, Tom upheld the great constitutional underpinnings of the historic role of parliamentarian with excellence and integrity.” Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy remarked in a tribute on the House floor, “I speak for all Republicans when I commend Tom for his professionalism, sound judgment, and steady demeanor in carrying out his duties.”
Mr. Wickham is a native of Epworth, Iowa, and a graduate of the University of Iowa and the University of Iowa College of Law. His early jobs included stints as a Wisconsin Dells tour guide, gas station cashier, fast-food worker, and mail clerk in his family’s small business. He enjoys hiking, especially up Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoah National Park. He and his wife, Heather, have two adult children and reside in Burke, Virginia.
It was a pleasure to have the following conversation with Mr. Wickham:
Full transcript as follows:
Alan E. Wiseman (00:00:00):
Hi, my name is Alan Wiseman. I’m the Chair of the Political Science department at Vanderbilt University. And along with Craig Volden of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, I’m also the Co-Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. And we’re very excited to welcome Mr. Thomas Wickham to spend some time with us this afternoon, Mr. Wickham served as the Parliamentarian of the U S House of Representatives from, pardon me from, 2012 to 2020. And even before he was in the U S House Parliamentarian, he worked at a broader capacity for the parliamentarian office for over 25 years. Dating back to the 104th Congress when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the U S House of Representatives. He’s a proud graduate of the University of Iowa, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, as well as his law degree.
Alan E. Wiseman (00:00:45):
And he’s currently a senior vice-president of state and local policy at the US Chamber of Commerce. Now across his 25 years as nonpartisan officer of the U S House of Representatives, Mr. Wickham was an essential guide to members of the US House of all ranks and all parties on the ways to engage with the legislative policy making and strategies. He’s a completely authoritative source on all matters of parliamentary procedure in the US House of Representatives. And as some viewers might know, he’s actually the editor of numerous guides on parliamentary procedure, including most recently the 2017 series on the “Precedents of the US House of Representatives.” We’re so happy to have you here today, Mr. Wickham, and we really appreciate you spending some time to engage with the conversation at the Center for Effective Lawmaking about policy making in the US House.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:01:34):
Well, thank you so much for having me. And, first of all, I want to apologize for my attire. This being casual Fridays, such informal dress would not be allowed in the House chamber. So hopefully that will give you a little perspective on my changed circumstances, and hopefully will only increase the value of the interview. As I talk to, as I talk as someone who was a former House Parliamentarian.
Alan E. Wiseman (00:02:08):
This all sounds great. Well, you know, as Craig and I discussed with you a little bit earlier, we’re going to start off by asking you a series of fairly general questions, but that being said, if at any point you’d like to narrow the focus a little bit or draw on your own personal experiences and anecdotes, we’d really appreciate that. Of course, bearing in mind the fact that we have to maintain confidentiality in certain circumstances, given your previous role as House Parliamentarian. Now, that being said, I think, one of the first questions we’d like to open up with is just to recognize that although the job of the House Parliamentarian is incredibly wide ranging, we’d really like to know what you felt were really your top priorities during your time in this position. And what do you think were the main challenges that you faced in carrying out this job?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:02:54):
We would often say that the first and main of the Parliamentarian was advising the Chair during deliberations in the full chamber. That was a obviously high profile, highly engaged part of our practice, all of our proceedings being telecast on C-SPAN, engagement with with the Speaker of the House and refer formal responsibilities of presiding. And so that was one of the top, if not the top priority. Secondly, our role as the Speaker’s agent in terms of referral of measures to committee was something that was very important and time consuming. Third, I would talk generally about consulting the leadership staff on the agenda and rules that were involved with coming pieces of legislation. And then I’d also say that that trickled down to the committees also advising them on their proceedings. But what I would also like to stress is there’s another aspect of our practice, which your intro touched upon, which is a little bit more academic, but more important in the long-term. And that is our role as keeper of the precedent of the House and under statute we are the compilers, analyzers and publishers of the precedents of the House dating back to the first set of precedents at the beginning of the 20th century.
Craig Volden (00:04:48):
I thanks for that overview, of course, thanks for joining us today. I think we’ll be able to touch on each of those aspects as we go along. I wanted to start with the guidance that you give to leadership and committees and members in how they develop and execute their legislative strategy. And in particular, I’m intrigued by the fact that you needed to be nonpartisan in what seems to be a growing partisan institution. And so I wondered kind of how you balanced that in your tasks.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:05:21):
Sure. It starts with the recruitment process for a parliamentarian. We are looking for young attorneys in our office who are interested in government and interested in public service, but do not have a partisan background. We take our statutory charter of being appointed by the Speaker, but that appointment being without regard to partisan affiliation, very seriously, and that starts with the recruitment of new attorneys. And then every relationship we have with staff and members of the House is a nonpartisan one in that it’s very clearly established that we’re not there to give policy advice or political advice. We are procedural experts, and that is our only bailey wick. And very soon after very short introduction to the office, there’s an assumption that the parliamentarians are the ones to go to for that institutional procedural advice and that there are other offices where that political partisan advice can be found.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:06:49):
And then not only in that interaction with the individual member or staffer, but they come away knowing that we’re going to give the exact same advice to the next staffer or member that comes into contact with us, regardless of party, with that caveat that we will be respecting confidentiality. I used to preface a lot of my advice or close my advice to say, Speaker Pelosi, Speaker Ryan, I’m giving you the exact same advice. I would’ve given Speaker Gingrich or Speaker Boehner. And they knew and respected that. And then that building from that very early foundation towards hundreds and hundreds, thousands and thousands of interactions, came that trust and credibility that comes with a non-partisan office in a very partisan place.
Alan E. Wiseman (00:07:53):
Well, I mean, related to the points you’re raising, just to try to dive down into the weeds a little bit here, I’d be curious to know what aspects of legislative strategy that you were clearly the appropriate source for. Did you find that leaders as well as members consulted with you or reached out to consult with you most often about?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:08:14):
Yeah, it does start with the introduction of bills. We – there’s such a large influx of legislation that was introduced in the upper. It used to be 10 to 12,000 a Congress. I think it’s growing even more. So having those preliminary discussions about where a bill might be referred and that really our operation was very hands-on, all the parliamentarians looked at those bills upon introduction and that allowed for different perspectives and often foreshadowing and issue spotting when it comes to those bills being brought to another stage in the legislative process and diagnosing a procedural obstacle or a point of order. And that’s largely where the interaction with the leaderships and the Rules Committee of both sides comes in is identifying procedural obstacles or with a particular piece of legislation or discussing procedural paths. Generally there’s that general chart of how a bill becomes a law. And sometimes there’s a desire to follow each step. Our job was to know each step in a very intimate way from what we’d say cradle to grave.
Craig Volden (00:09:43):
Right, so stepping through some of those paces or steps along the way, just starting at bill introduction, did you, uh, get a sense of where various ideas came from? That is to what extent were bills introduced because this was an idea that a legislator herself had that her constituents really were pushing, interest groups, party leadership committees. And did that sort of mix of the origin of bills change over over your time in Congress?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:10:17):
Yes, When I initially considered this issue, I thought, ‘boy, it’s a nice mix between the member and interest groups.’ Oftentimes an experienced member is going to know the terrain and start to develop ideas on their own. And then the other is the interest groups out there that are often supplying ideas. But one area that I think needs to be explored if it has not been by academia is – there’s been a great reduction in the oversight process in the House of Representatives with regard to just basic oversight responsibilities and that involved a lot of interaction between the members of Congress and the executive branch. And I tend to think those interplays, whether they be letters back and forth, whether it be, you know, informal interrogatories or formal hearing testimony, oftentimes ideas for bills would emerge between those interactions. And I think that has decreased some of the more informal ideas that would be coming out of that interplay along with, there’s been a great reduction in the amount of authorization bills and more formal pieces of legislation that were sent over in a formal manner as executive communications from the executive branch to the legislative branch.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:12:01):
When I started early on, we’d have a lot more authorization bills and many of them would have their origin in the executive branch as proposals. I think the only one that does that at this time is the NDA, the national defense authorization act. And that’s been a slow decline over my 25 years.
Alan E. Wiseman (00:12:26):
That’s a great point that you raised that actually serves as a great springboard for what my next question is because, as you know, essentially members of the general public and many scholars, when they think about the role the president plays in the legislative process, many people focus more on the final results of either the president signing something into law or alternatively vetoing it. But the point that you’re raising right now about the ways in which the executive branch and the presidents in particular have served as the foundation for new ideas and new legislation is a relatively understudied topic or under appreciated topic. And I really appreciate you noting how, by the time you left office, there was very little legislation that was introduced that clearly followed from executive initiative. And I’d just be curious to know, what do you think might’ve contributed to this decrease in the ways in which the president takes an overt or obvious process or obvious level of engagement with the lawmaking process compared to say 10, 20 or 30 years ago?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:13:28):
Well, I want to put out some food for thought. I don’t think I’ve crystallized my thinking about this, but as you bring this up, it’s something that I said informally for a long time. And that is that the process that we see in the US with a separation of powers as compared to the parliamentary systems in the Westminster system and a number of other that have had the fortune of studying to some extent, that they have narrowed, the gaps have narrowed because of what I call front-loading. That there’s a lot of communication that goes on before a bill is introduced before a bill is considered at the committee level, passed by the House to the Senate. And that communication is very informal, but it is often carried out publicly through you know everything from a public statement to Twitter, to other activities such that we really see a paucity of vetoes as time has gone on.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:14:51):
The number of vetoes has gone down because of the front-loading that is going on. One of the areas where it’s really becoming prominent is with regard to expedited procedure of bills when we have unified government trying to get many of the procedural obstacles addressed even prior to the bill being introduced, such that something like the Byrd Rule, which is a Senate rule, is something that is now much more comprehensively applied across the government because of that front-loading and communication. But on the other end of that spectrum, going to your question is there’s been a lot less of the formal communication with regard to legislative proposals, such as the executive branch formally submitting as an executive communication, legislative proposals. And I just think that some of those formalities, I have to believe some of them were dropped because it’s so difficult to build coalitions around something like that.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:16:12):
Once it becomes formal that there’s a much greater tendency to have those discussions occur prior to any formal steps, such as introduction, committee, consideration, passage by the House. And I think a good case study on this would be with regard to what occurred all with, on minimum wage on the last bill, that there were decision points at which the House leadership could have said, ‘we foresee this bill being, or this provision being eliminated on a point of order, let’s take it out now.’ And what factors led to the inclusion of that all the way through to the Senate side and then Senate consideration? And what role did the procedural advisors play in that? I think is is a good area for study,
Craig Volden (00:17:21):
Right, I’m intrigued by thinking through the stages along the way. And we’ve talked a lot about introduction. Next I’d love to hear your thoughts on the referral to committees. I could imagine that as someone introduces a bill, they, or the leadership have some preferences about what committee that bill might be referred to. For example, a member might love to have a committee that a bill that she sponsors go to a committee that she sits on, and seems like they could somewhat alter that by the way they word their bills and so on, but maybe not. And so I was just wondering to what extent do members have some leeway and how does the parliamentarian office, you know, make those decisions?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:18:08):
I think one of the areas where I had some experience and been somewhat of a leader on, maybe to the dismay of other parliamentarians is a concept in the referral of measures called statutory sensitivity. If you’re familiar with the work of the law revision council and the legislative council, they are experts in the organization of the US code as well as in the crafting of legislation. One of my big beliefs is that there is a coherent organization with regard to how the statutes are organized, how alleged counsel will draft those bills and will instinctively treat the subject matter of a particular vein or genre within a particular statute. And I had always felt that the referral process should also be aligned with that statutory sensitivity, such that there was a presumption, if a statute was amended that it, if that was amended, it stay within that organizational cohort such that, you know, for lack of a better word, the public health service act amendments be referred to Energy and Commerce that Title 18, which dealt with criminality, be referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:19:53):
Well, as you can see, entrepreneurial minds will take that statutory sensitivity and try to achieve a referral of their choice, or to try to excise a committee from consideration of the measure. So a lot of those types of jockeying goes on with regard to our office. One of the things we did was to provide preliminary assessments of where a bill would be referred, that those referrals were often… they had to be text-based and then they were just that: they were preliminary. That on the day of introduction after a discussion amongst all of us, as I said, each and every parliamentarian looked at the bills, that collectively a decision would be made, but we saw a lot of that used to be very particular to the chairs and their staff. And I think one of the things we’ll talk about is the expertise of committee staffs and how that affects the bill writing and consideration process.
Alan E. Wiseman (00:21:16):
For fans of legislative procedure, we love all of this, but wondered how this all plays out then with regard to multiple referrals. Is that when there’s some disagreement or when somebody wants there to be multiple referrals, how does that… ?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:21:32):
Well, I, one of the blessings of working in an office like ours is you get, you have such a long history of service to the office. So one of my predecessors was Charles Johnson. He began in the office in 1964. So he was able to document how referral decisions were made prior to, I believe, 1974 when there was just one committee allowed so that these issues of multiple referrals were not existent. And then the seventies came, multiple referrals were allowed. And then in 1995, when I arrived, the big change was to designate a requirement to designate a primary committee of referral. So the multiple committees issue is very challenging. One of the rules that we would often apply would be if there’s a provision in a bill that a committee, if that provision were introduced on its own, that that committee may be the only committee of referral on that bill.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:22:52):
That was pretty good grounds for adding that committee as an additional committee of referral. Other things with regard to the history of one committee referrals, the Armed Services Committee has a strong history of having the NDA referred just to that committee. There’s also issues of volume. Large, large bills with only one or two provisions in a committee’s jurisdiction were often, not disregarded, but there was a decision made that they were better suited for a later stage of House consideration. There’s a phenomenon known as a squinter referral. So if there’s a very small provision that we all agreed was in another committee’s jurisdiction, one of the things we might do is say, ‘this committee is worthy of a referral, but not at the introductory stage. If they request a referral at a later stage, we would advise that that referral be granted.’
Alan E. Wiseman (00:24:08):
So as Craig was saying, all of us who are fascinated by legislative procedure, this is wonderful to hear for so many reasons. I want to pick up on something that you made reference to, or made a brief reference to, and that being essentially really, really large bills. And when I think about really large bills, many scholars have been quick to note the ways in which legislation in the U S House in particular has evolved in recent years, such that there is notably more lawmaking that occurs through omnibus bills that are referred to multiple committees, especially if we think about standard authorization procedures or standard authorizing legislation dating back to the eighties, seventies and early years. And I was curious to know, just given the positions that you occupied, especially when you were sitting as a House Parliamentarian, you know, how do you think the nature of these bills themselves have evolved over time, such that we’d now see so much omnibus legislation? Do you see any obvious costs or benefits to engaging in lawmaking in this form, or what do you think might have contributed to these changes in legislative procedure?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:25:09):
Yeah, I think one of the observations I have is that one of the core principles of the committee procedure and the committee system is expertise in a given subject matter. And as two things have occurred, as members’ tenures have been limited just generally as their main committee term limits and then the frequency of staff turnover, have all contributed to a lack of, or a different focus with regard to expertise at the committee level that… you know, one of the early publications I worked on, how our laws are made, would say, these people that are on this committee are all experts in this particular subject matter. And I think there was a little less of an emphasis on that as those factors came into play. And that, you know, there is a lot written about the increased centralization of power in the House of Representatives.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:26:28):
And I’ll let the academics have their … let them have their say in that matter. But what seemed to be reflected in a lot of the legislative procedure is that there was not the emphasis on building up the expertise and serving that way, perhaps due to a lack of oversight and interaction with the legislative branch. But instead there were often decisions made in terms of expediency and politics about whether something was going to be considered at the committee level. And what we saw a lot was a lot of expertise being brought to the table, to our office, through the leadership offices, you know, often including the committee, that it just wasn’t as public, or as formal as it might’ve been in the old “bills introduced, bills marked up in committee, their hearings, et cetera.” But a lot of that expertise was coming to the forefront, but not as, not in as public or formal way.
Craig Volden (00:27:47):
When we think about that expertise, if members are becoming maybe more generalists and maybe not picking up that expertise in committees and then kind of regular order, it still helps presumably to have experts on policy matters in formulating bills? Is there more reliance on expertise outside of the chamber at this point then? And does that point to interest groups, does that point to academics? How do we think about where the expertise comes in?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:28:18):
I can’t speak, I don’t think, to that, but I think this really, a real service to academia for me to either say you should look at this or has someone looked at this, but what would be an interesting study would be what I see specifically within the last couple of years is an explosion or an increase in bills introduced. And many of those bills are of a general nature, that are not confined to a specific subject matter. What might be an interesting ground for study is, as the committee system goes through changes, evolves, is there a corresponding relationship to bills introduced in the hopper? That we used to have a member who would be on a specific committee and he would only introduce bills that were going to be referred to that committee. Is there behavior like that still occurring today? Not sure. What is the rule of chairs of committees and introducing their bill as opposed to other rank and file members and their roles on committees?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:29:43):
I think there’s a lot of evolution there, but there’s no doubt that the committee system and, it’s place in the ethos of the House, has changed. One of the favorite stories… Barney Frank. And he would, he would not mind me saying this, is he used to tell members the real action is in the committees. Because of some of the restrictions you would see at the chamber level, that the real give and take on amendments is what occurs at the committee and that members should assert themselves more there because of the restrictions in the full chamber.
Alan E. Wiseman (00:30:40):
Well, that’s actually a great lead into my next question, which actually builds on a point that you raised a little bit earlier when you were thinking about the ways in which expertise is perhaps cultivated or used by party leaders at certain points in the process. If we think about what happens in terms of the ways bills are modified in committee, to the extent that occurs, there’s potential give and take and whatnot. And I guess I’d be curious to know just based on the period of time that you serve in the House and in particular, in your role as parliamentarian, do you feel that the changes that occurred within committee were largely the output of a reasonably coherent deliberative process? Or do you think that qualitative deliberative nature or the nature of deliberation has changed over the last 25 years, to the extent it’s still occurs in committee?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:31:31):
I think it probably has changed. I have to admit I was not as involved in the committee process in my later days as parliamentarian focusing more on the floor and leadership, but what I will tell you, and I made this statement to committee staff and floor staff, particularly those in the minority, that there are a lot of trades of expediency for deliberative rights – that a lot of members wanting to get from point A to point B, whether it be short-term thinking, there’s something else going on, or that there wasn’t a real deep interest in the particular legislation – that they would say, ‘we’re not going to offer any amendments in order to get this bill moved faster.’ And we would always caution them because of the power of precedent, that allowing for the foreclosure of amendments or the foreclosure of debate had a precedential value is such that in the current time that someone needs to be somewhere else, Alan, or has no issues with moving quickly could be used in the future in a way that would be disadvantageous to the minority. And that type of short term thinking I think is happening a lot throughout the legislative process and as concerned me for some time.
Craig Volden (00:33:22):
When we think about that, how that concretely plays out that is at least partly the rise of closed rules, the decline of open rules, having various structured rules along the way, when a particular bill comes up, are those discussions more about expediency? Are they more about, ‘well, the minority party could really bottle this one up.’ So it’s partisan? How are those decisions made such that we’ve seen this broad pattern of more and more closed rules over time?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:33:57):
One of the things that the majority’s get a bit of a bad rap for is the influx or the increase in closed rules and in scheduled, restrictive types of rules. And one of the things that I think is undervalued is the comparison to society as a whole. I’ve often said that there isn’t as great an appetite for unscheduled anything. If you’ll look at the most popular sports, the ones that don’t have a clock, and then don’t have a set time, baseball and golf are declining in popularity. If you look at the way children are raised, the amount of unscheduled time in their lives, those children who have now become members of Congress, they do not value … there’s just, it just does not occur with the frequency that it once did, society-wise. And I think that blaming other factors such as partisanship and fear of the unknown is a little over stated as compared to my point, but there’s no doubt that those things play a part.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:35:40):
One of the areas that I’ve often wanted to have academia look at is, going back to an earlier segue, is if there was a way to document the amount of times in which a committee’s action was overturned in the House. It became much more public under both leaderships in both parties where the committees often in a freewheeling way would adopt an amendment. And then that would not sit well, for whatever reason, for the majority party. And then they would have the rules committee excise that, or change that. If there was a way to even study public comments about that, I think that would be a value to studying the legislative process. And then that goes to the larger question of whether or not a bill would be considered by committee at all.
Alan E. Wiseman (00:36:47):
I mean, thinking about the ways in which the institution has evolved just over the 25-ish years that you were working there and then thinking about its broader history, to people that don’t really know what the House parliamentarian does or what the role of that officer is, a natural question that may people might ask is, you know, to what degree are new precedents actually being created or revised or refined at any given point in time? And, I guess, to turn the question to you, I mean, obviously you were very active on a day-to-day basis in terms of managing what occurs on the floor or at other points of the legislative process. But to what degree do we actually see meaningful revisions to precedent evolving at any point in time or even across your career? Off the top of your head, can you think of ways in which precedent really did evolve in a meaningful way due to specific cases across the 25 years you were in the House?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:37:41):
I think I’ll talk generally about what you’ve said. And I’ve said this before, is that in the span of my career, the answer of, that an academic or someone would give to a particular action being taken by the leadership of either party in response or by an individual member in response to our advice being ‘well, they’re doing that because of partisanship’ has increased quite a bit. The amount of measures, which we as parliamentarians enjoy just for the sport of it, that cross party lines, some of them the old days, dairy compacts, sometimes you’d see it with regard to patriot act provisions, civil liberties, things like that. And those I think are decreasing in number and that the way our advice gets used because of partisanship has increased quite a bit. Our interactions with the members on second point because of incivility, because of their inability to interact with each other, is also something that has increased. That the mindfulness, the attentiveness, the amount of energy that the parliamentarian has to devote to matters of civility of just getting along, those basic rules.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:39:24):
I learned in kindergarten how to win friends, influence people. And once again, I’m not saying this to beat up on the institution, but I think it is a reflection of society in that regard. One of our challenges as parliamentarians was to create a chamber whereby different rules were applied, that you needed to act differently. I used to say, this is a debate in the House, not the screaming match on CNN or MSNBC or Fox. And one of the measures that’s really ripe for study is how the new members deal with that. There’s been a lot of concern about attire and dress codes, et cetera, that ability to create a different atmosphere when you enter that chamber, keeping the history and the institution and hoping that that led to a better quality of debate.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:40:43):
And that’s very much difficult as society changes – less and less dress codes, less and less attire. And then that’s part of a larger, Alan, socialization of the member. And this is a long way to getting to this point: does a member not having committee assignments result in a loss of socialization into the institution, such that incivility grows, such that it exacerbates instability? And we’ve had a number of members, not just one party, other parties have for one reason or another, not been assigned a committee. Does not having a committee assignment result in a loss of socialization, result in a norm breakdown, that only serves as counterproductive to the disciplinary end that was being sought?
Craig Volden (00:41:57):
So some of this that you’re describing is sort of in the socialization or the norms of behavior element, but the, part of the job of the parliamentarian also involves counseling people on the more structured, constitutional and statutory responsibilities and rules. I’m wondering the extent to which that is straightforward: ‘what do I say? and when do I say it?’ type of thing, or are there, is there a sort of a bristling at other elements of one’s responsibility and following statutory and constitutional rules, that you’re observing in the House as well?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:42:36):
Craig, that’s an excellent question. And one of the things that I often would analogize to is that the parliamentarian is often like an algebra teacher when it comes to the Constitution and statutes that govern legislative procedure, very advanced level of discussion. And one of my concerns is that with the lack of civics education out there, the rest of the country is really struggling with basic math. And that is resulting in some real challenges in upholding those constitutional requirements and upholding those statutory requirements. When you’re trying to convey them to a member of Congress to get your point across about why this constitutional standard needs to be met. However, the blessing of that is that because institutions and the Constitution and a number of other things have diminished within the public sphere, it only makes the experts in those areas more valuable and more credible. That has always been our positive take on it, but it does result in a challenge as you interact with someone who wants to do something that you may advise is contrary to the origination clause. There’s a steep learning curve that I don’t think would have been present 50 years ago, a hundred years ago.
Alan E. Wiseman (00:44:37):
I mean, building on those points at the Center for Effective Lawmaking Craig and I are very interested in trying to identify the steps that either incumbent or potential members of Congress could employ to become more effective lawmakers. And really just reinforcing some of the themes that you’ve been speaking to, I’d be curious to know, based on your perspective and the seats that you held in the institution, what do you think are the keys to becoming an effective lawmaker, especially within the contemporary Congress?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:45:06):
I used to give a number of lectures through my career. And one of the staples was that the parliamentarian would stress the three P’s of being an effective staffer and effective member. One needs to know policy, one needs to know people and one needs to know procedure. And that the best members, the most capable members could function so effortlessly within those three spheres. I’ll bring Barney Frank to the forefront again, in that you can have a procedural discussion with him, and then he could take that knowledge and then apply it politically. We often would share space with the most powerful people in the House that were very powerful politically, and the best members or staffers were the ones who can say, ‘well, I’m going to talk to the parliamentarian first. Then I’m going to talk to you’ or vice versa. And were able to really function in all of those arenas.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:46:29):
And then you’re able to see members who are so strong in one or two of those arenas that were really lacking in a third. And it hindered their careers. And what I would tell staff to do is, a series of evaluations, whether it be by a supervisor or self evaluation, see how you’re doing on those three P’s, and then try to work on those skills, to know policy a little better. With regard to people know your colleagues as people, and know how to relate to them. And then the easy part was, yeah come talk to the parliamentarians if you needed a procedural upkeep. And what I’m hopeful is that there’s just an evolution and that staffers will continue, and members will continue, to strive in those three areas and, will result in fulfilling their legislative responsibilities.
Craig Volden (00:47:54):
Well, we’ve spoken about the policy and policy expertise. I’d love to hear your thoughts a little bit more on the ‘getting to know people.’ It seems members are so rushed and returning back to their districts and so on. Do you think there’s enough of those connections or what could be done along those lines to build up the people knowledge?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:48:13):
One of the things that the parliamentarians are required to do and become quite adept at is memorizing all of the members by name and face, all 435. And I would often impress the sports fans out there to say, ‘well, it’s kind of like the NBA that gets 420 players, and you have to know them all by teams and name,’ and it’s not exactly the case or school kids, I’d say how many kids are in your school? There are a number of members throughout my career that not only knew all the members by name, but knew all the staffers by name. They were just so much in, they were inculcated, they were taught that Dale Carnegie lesson of, look the member in the eye, know their names. And then that would help you oftentimes in something, in something like legislative horse trading, or in just a way of being a better member of Congress. And then a feeling of belonging to the institution and we saw members often would contain, or would have autograph books, where they get the autograph of each and every member. I tend to think those are diminishing a little bit. And my concern is partisanship. When people say to me, I know almost all the Dems or very little. I think one of them recently talked about, Mr. Timmons suggested that he only had two or three Republican or Democrat names in his phone, you know, things like that, those anecdotal stories of it becoming a much more partisan place, that affiliating only with your teammates rather than being an institutionalist and knowing everyone in the institution has diminished some. But you talk about strong people skills. I have seen that over 25 years, the amount of relating to others that goes on.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:50:50):
I’ve just seen some people that were really very good at… I think one of the political skills is making someone feel like you’re the only person in the room, that I’ve seen in spades. And then some of the knowing, some of where the passions lie, a lot of the members have had diverse experiences and being able to reach them on that level. Seeing some of the partnerships that have gone on with regard to judicial reform in the last Congress, some of those partnerships on judiciary, Mr. Collins, Mr. Jeffries, things like that, have been very, very valuable. And those don’t occur without some very strong people skills to transcend that partisanship.
Alan E. Wiseman (00:51:59):
I mean, in terms of trying to shift gears just slightly, but still reinforcing the points we’re talking about at the Center we’re also interested in trying to understand the extent to which Congress as a whole is organized in such a way that it could engage with some of America’s most pressing policy problems. And if we shift our focus from the individual members, the institution as a whole, I’d also be curious to know what your perspectives are and how well you think Congress is currently organized at the institutional level, or perhaps two different institutional reforms over the past 20 ish years. Has made it more or less able to engage with these pressing policy challenges?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:52:35):
I describe this paradigm this way, that I always understood that there is a responsibility that the members have for electioneering, and there’s a responsibility that they have for governing. And I’ve always wanted to tilt the balance more towards governing. One of the factors that plays into that, Alan, is, and I describe it on a comparative level is the fact that the House’s terms are two years. And so I say it like this to my colleagues and other parliaments, I said, I’ve been dealing with other parliaments and other countries, have been fortunate to work through the House democracy partnership and a number of other organizations for a long time. And many of them, of those countries have started legislative bodies or have recreated their legislative bodies, constitutional amendments, et cetera. Yes, so many of them have adopted two year terms for their bodies (signals ZERO).
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:53:53):
Yeah. So I think that institutional or the constitutional restriction really plays into a lot of things. And that is something that we can’t lose sight of when we say, ‘oh, the House is too partisan. The House is too focused on election related legislation rather than governing.’ But that overarching two year time limit is something that always should be in the forefront of our conversations. The other is something I know a lot about, and that is the organization of the committees and the jurisdiction of the committees. I’ve often advocated for a reorganization of the committee system. And that has been very, very challenging to do. There have been some successes with task forces, when I did it to be in my most creative and entrepreneurial step, I just say, put a hold on the committees for one year or two years, four years, just use task forces while we rearrange it. The area where it’s played out most prominently is with regard to the new committee on Homeland Security and the many oversight responsibilities that have been well documented by that committee. But very, very difficult to change.
Craig Volden (00:55:37):
Yeah. I would imagine that people don’t want to give up what they already have a hold on. And in some of those cases.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:55:43):
In many cases, what was really the problem, Craig, is fighting over what they thought they had, and there’s not real clarity over that. And that makes any next step even harder.
Craig Volden (00:55:57):
Right. Right. So over the past couple of years, the House has done some reassessment about how well it’s functioning. I have been thinking here about this select committee on the modernization of Congress and the large number of proposals that have come out of that select committee. I’m wondering if some of those particularly resonate with you or some may even be taking us in the wrong direction? Just kind of your assessment there, as well as other reforms that have been floated about.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:56:23):
That’s great. The Select Committee is a really good example of some members who possess policies skills, people skills, and procedural skills. To accomplish what they have is really been extraordinary. This is not the first effort at reform that I’ve seen, but I think by far it has been the most successful. But I have seen. To that point, one of the things that my perspective has given me, being away, is there was a bias or a wall between associating or linking the rules to partisanship such that you wanted the rules to be as devoid and neutral as possible. One of the things I’ve been more open to and the select committee has taken steps informally, the problem-solvers have taken formal steps to recommend that legislation or other things cannot go forward unless they have a bipartisan backing.
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:57:47):
Tom Wickham five years ago would have had a very different reaction to that kind of overture. And I think as I am in a new position, I see that changing the rules to mandate or a suggest, persuade, whatever, a more bipartisan approach to the rules and institutional requirements could be a good thing. And the problem solvers is the consensus calendar. The main problem I heard from members over my last 10 years was there’s not a way for rank and file members to get onto the agenda, get their items onto the agenda. So this was a concession in that regard. And then because of the high co-sponsor requirement, it was building in some bipartisanship.
Alan E. Wiseman (00:58:57):
I mean, thinking about these potential institutional reforms, I actually want to wind ourselves back to a point you raised about your past experiences, observing in person some in some cases, the ways in which other developed and developing democracies have structured their own legislatures. And putting aside the obvious case that we’re, our House is essentially, as you noted the only one that has these short terms for members, I was curious to know if offhand, based on your experience and your conversations with people, you think there’s particular institutional structures within these other legislatures that seem to help them function particularly well with regards to the lawmaking process?
Mr. Tom Wickham (00:59:38):
There is a belief, and this is less an analysis or opinion, rather than just kind of the way it is, but I’ve always said that the separation of powers sentiment that is foundational to our system flows downward within institutions, such that if you would see in the Westminster system, you would have a clerk or a secretary general that would carry out the role of the parliamentarian, the chap, when the clerk, Sergeant at arms, all of these people that we have as individuals in our system, because there is an inherent fear of one person, that anti-federalists that one person having too much power. And that requires then a corresponding need for just outstanding communication between those entities. So I’ve been very fortunate to have great communications with the Sergeant at arms clerks, et cetera, but a unified system like you see in Westminster or where they have a secretary general, could eliminate some inefficiencies.
Mr. Tom Wickham (01:01:13):
And that is one thing that I’ve shared over over the years, but that foundational separation of powers that everyone studies in elementary school, and you have to learn in order to become \a citizen is something that we see blow down. And then that corresponds to the individual members offices. Select committee on modernization has done a great job in dealing with some of the leftovers of that, or maybe the overemphasis on every member of Congress is an island. And far as IT as far as other guidance. And I think they’ve made great strides in that area, but I only speak to what is the causation of that. And that I think flows back to the foundational documents.
Craig Volden (01:02:08):
Yeah. It’s interesting to think about the separation of powers versus parliamentary systems and maybe what we can learn from other systems and other sorts where we might be able to learn from is state legislatures, which seem to be all over the board in how they’re functioning, some perhaps a better than others. And I’m thinking about, most, maybe most, maybe half members of Congress who have served in state legislatures and then come to Congress. presumably you have to have them unlearn a variety of procedures and so on. Or how do you think about where they build on that earlier experience once they get to Congress? is it generally beneficial for them to have had that experience or not so much?
Mr. Tom Wickham (01:02:53):
One of our favorite sayings was, there’s a new member coming to the House. The good news is he was the speaker of the state house. The bad news is he was a speaker of the state house. One of the most effective presiding officers that I’ve worked with was Mike Simpson of Idaho, a former speaker. And usually it’s a good thing, Craig, because they have a familiarity with rules and a familiarity with process, and then a lot more patience when it comes to wielding the gavel than others. And then most of the systems are similar. We often are confused with, parliamentarians are confused with experts at Robert’s rules of order. Robert’s rules is used very, very infrequently at even the state level, but they all have a similar familiarity with rules and procedure that I think is very helpful. What I’ve seen in my new job, as well as comments from my old job, was that the state legislatures were a lot less partisan and that was beneficial to relationships and towards a common unifying feeling. What I found also was that there is a lot of difference with regard to a part-time legislature, personable time legislature, the professionalization of the House of Representatives versus a part-time state legislature is, is vast, the gap there is very fast.
Alan E. Wiseman (01:04:56):
Well, we really appreciate the time you spent with us, and we also want to be mindful of your time, but that being said, given all of your experience and the amount of history that you witnessed in the US House during your years, we also want to get your final thoughts about the events of January 6th. You were no longer formally speaking, you were no longer the house parliamentarian on that date, but were there when the Capitol was stormed during the certification of President Biden’s election and, Craig and I, and I’m sure many other people will be viewing this, were really curious to know, given your perspective on the history of the chamber, whether or not you had any other thoughts or reactions about the events of that day, they’d be willing to share with us.
Mr. Tom Wickham (01:05:37):
Yeah. One of the benefits of being in the parliamentarian’s office with the long-term service is that you get to see these infrequent constitutional events, such as the counting of the electoral votes, multiple times over my 25 years. And so even though I had formerly retired, the speaker, the current parliamentarian and others felt it was, helpful to have, uh me on hand to witness that and give whatever counsel I possibly could. It turned out, unfortunately that that day, my greatest expertise was that in the area of disaster preparation and other things that were drilled after 9-11. All of the rules and all of our procedures were appended after 9-11 and rightfully so because of the unprecedented attack on the United States.
Mr. Tom Wickham (01:06:53):
So a number of those, that training that I received was very helpful in counseling others who had not had that extensive training. But that day went beyond any training we would have had. One of the police officers who had had a similarly long tenure to me said that that was the worst of the worst. And I could go through a litany of very bad occurrences, but I won’t do it. I think that conveys it. The other thing that really stands out is how well the Capitol police and the Sergeant in arms and everyone who was inside the chamber that was dedicated to the safety of the members. And the staff did an efficiently carrying out their duties in evacuating the chamber and getting the members to a safe place. But that leads me to the last story, was the next day there was a lot of emotion.
Mr. Tom Wickham (01:08:15):
There was a lot of conveying thanks to people that played very critical roles in your personal safety and things where we’ll be eternally grateful. I conveyed my thank you to one of the police officers. And he said that he was proud because they fought for four hours, the police, for four hours, and then they took the building back. And I think that was accurate in his description, but it saddened me as someone who has invested their professional career over the exchange of ideas and working through the problems of the nation in a non-violent way within the Capitol building, to think that it was being treated as a piece of property or territory in a war, taking back or losing or any types of terms of that kind was very disheartening. And that is something that will stay with me forever.
Craig Volden (01:09:42):
Yes. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. That’s a trying time for everybody involved, especially those on the ground at that point in time. And thanks for, all of your thoughts today. We really appreciate this opportunity to engage you in an interview. Before we let you go, just wondered if there are anything else that maybe we didn’t cover, or some final thoughts that you have about lawmaking in Congress and, and where we’re going off into the future?
Mr. Tom Wickham (01:10:10):
Well, I just want to thank you so much for this program and all that you are doing for the cause of effective lawmaking. As oftentimes, those in my position and members of Congress, we face a lot of criticism, but I tell them that we wouldn’t be criticized and it wouldn’t be with such passion if what we were doing wasn’t important. So I thank you so much for the important work that you’re doing, and then reaching out to people like myself, people like Mr. Nevins, who is a great resource, and I encourage you to continue this type of external communication where you can find it and to keep on this path of accumulating knowledge. The one thing that I told everyone about the job was no two days were the same. Congress just keeps evolving. So study like this is very, very important.
Craig Volden (01:11:26):
Well, we appreciate you sharing your decades of expertise. Most, most appreciate it.
Mr. Tom Wickham (01:11:31):
Alan E. Wiseman (01:11:32):
Thank you. Look forward to seeing you again soon.
Mr. Tom Wickham (01:11:36):
All right. Have a great day.