The young man watches his assistant type. Wearing a suit, his hair combed into a straight side part, the Parliamentarian leans forward slightly. Lewis Deschler’s eyes observe his assistant’s fingers, as if trying to capture a mistake before it happens. Although the Parliamentarian doesn’t look down, his index finger rests on one precise spot in his scrapbook of precedents. Deschler’s scrapbook was the important reference file of a man known for his influence.
In 1928, at the age of 22, Deschler became the House Parliamentarian. He held the position until 1974. On the rostrum, “sitting within whispering distance of a succession of Speakers of the House, Lewis Deschler derived his powers from the ability to cite the thousands of precedents and intricate rules that govern that body,” noted the New York Times. If you browse 20th-century photographs of the House Chamber, you can spot him in image after image, always in the background, quietly and attentively listening. Deschler was such a stickler for tradition that in 1932, when a man pulled a gun in the House Gallery, the Parliamentarian supposedly tried to stop the presiding officer from running away, exclaiming, “You can’t leave—you’re presiding!”
Each decision made by the presiding officer during debate should follow earlier decisions. Known as precedents, these earlier examples help to steer parliamentary procedure and, ideally, keep the House consistent. Appointed by the Speaker, the Parliamentarian is an expert in precedents and House Rules, using that knowledge to guide the Speaker, presiding officers, and the House.
As debate and voting take place on the House Floor, transcripts are recorded for the Congressional Record. The Parliamentarian reviews and makes notes about this written record, specifically recording decisions and their legal basis. The notes are gathered into scrapbooks. After much analysis and review, the Parliamentarian assembles information from the scrapbooks into volumes of precedents, which are published periodically.
Several photographs show Deschler, sometimes with Assistant Parliamentarian William T. Roy, working with his scrapbook or consulting other volumes. In one photograph, they sit at Deschler’s desk, looking at the book. Each man uses a hand to prop the hardcover tome open, as the book probably would not have stayed open on its own. Because the Parliamentarians pasted clippings from the Congressional Record into the scrapbook, the pages grew cockled, or warped, likely from the glue’s moisture, making the unwieldy book even thicker. “He literally has consumed enough Congressional Records to give him gastric indigestion,” quipped the Washington Post.
Deschler normally operated under the radar. His wizardry with precedents and rules helped achieve statehood for Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. Just when it seemed that there would be enough support for two new states in the House, the powerful Rules Committee blocked the legislation from coming to the floor. But, guided by the Parliamentarian, the House used an unusual maneuver to circumvent the committee—allowing Members to vote for Alaskan and Hawaiian statehood.
Newspapers reported that this led to proposals for a statue of the Parliamentarian in the new state of Alaska, but the statue was never constructed. It was just as well, for Deschler preferred to remain unnoticed. “He is as nearly invisible as is possible for a six-foot, two-inch tall man who sits” on the rostrum right near the Speaker, wrote the New York Times.
But in 1973, Deschler’s prized inconspicuousness fell away as his scrapbooks came into the limelight.
On October 5, 1973, consumer advocate Ralph Nader testified before the House’s Select Committee on Committees. Discussing congressional reform, Nader voiced his frustrations with the institution. He turned his attention to the Parliamentarian: “He is the keeper of the House precedents, a treasure which he jealously guards even from the Members who must rely on them in the course of debate.”
Knowing about, and having access to, precedents was important for Representatives as they crafted and debated legislation. But, Nader argued, Deschler hadn’t published the precedents he collected. The latest collection of precedents had been published by Clarence Cannon of Missouri in 1936, nearly four decades earlier. According to the New York Times, the Parliamentarian’s Office had been working toward the publication of a new compendium of precedents since 1965, but still had not completed work by the 1973 hearing.
“These scrapbooks are kept in the Parliamentarian’s office where Deschler allows no one but his staff to see them, except that a Member with a parliamentary question may see a precedent or two—but only in the presence of the Parliamentarian,” Nader continued.
Deschler and several Members addressed these claims that the Parliamentarian was prohibiting access to legislative precedents. “Any member can get any information I have,” the Parliamentarian responded. “Deschler has great influence but no power,” explained Richard Bolling of Missouri, chair of the select committee. Paul Findley of Illinois agreed that the Parliamentarian was fair to Members when they asked for help, but he maintained that a published compendium would be very useful.
The next year, Deschler began publishing his collection of precedents. Although he died in 1976, the next three Parliamentarians continued publishing the remaining volumes of the “Deschler series” through 2013. Buoyed by technological changes, the Parliamentarian’s Office completed two books of the most recent series of precedents in 2018 and 2019. According to the latest volumes, scrapbooks are still part of the compilation process.
Sources: Hearings before the House Select Committee on Committees, Committee Organization in the House, 93rd Cong., 1st sess. (1973); Chicago Tribune, 13 July 1976; New York Times, 27 September 1973, 13 July 1976; Washington Post, 8 October 1933, 13 May 1934, 6 October 1973; Thomas J. Wickham Jr., “Preface to the New Precedent Series,” Precedents of the United States House of Representatives, vol. 1 (Washington: Government Publishing Office, 2018); Fred A. Seaton, “Alaska’s Struggle for Statehood,” Nebraska Law Review 39, no. 2 (1960); Parliamentarian of the House, The United States House of Representatives, accessed 10 September 2020, https://www.house.gov/the-house-explained/officers-and-organizations/parliamentarian-of-the-house.Follow @USHouseHistory