Making sure that 435 elected officials follow rules of order may sound like a task akin to herding cats, but there is one Hawkeye who is up to the challenge.
Effective March 31, University of Iowa graduate Tom Wickham (B.A. ’90, J.D. ’94) is Parliamentarian of the U.S. House of Representatives, a nonpartisan post appointed by the Speaker of the House. The parliamentarian, who is seated to the right of the speaker when Congress is in session, is responsible for advising in real time the presiding officers and House lawmakers on procedural rules established by the U.S. Constitution and through precedent. The parliamentarian also is available throughout the year to respond to legislative inquiries—on the technicalities of earmarks, for example—from committees working on bills.
“There are 435 members of the U.S. House, each with different constituencies and different goals. Our office—with six attorneys and three clerks—is dedicated to making sure that proper procedures are followed,” he explains. “We help to make sure that the debate follows a certain order and does not descend into chaos.”
One of the biggest challenges of the parliamentarian is to maintain neutrality—and, in turn, the trust of the representatives. But remaining unbiased is achievable, and those who hold the title tend to retire with it. Wickham is just the fifth person to serve in the position since 1927 (though similar roles date back to 1857). He has worked in the office for 17 years, starting in 1995 as an assistant parliamentarian and becoming deputy parliamentarian in 2005. He has served under four Speakers of the House.
“Our office has a history of long service. Once you’ve performed this role for a while, you gain institutional knowledge that’s of value to the House,” says Wickham, whose predecessor, John Sullivan, was praised by leaders on both sides of the chamber when his retirement was announced in February. “We use rules to address policy whether that policy involves ethanol subsidies or an MX missile. You get to a point where you don’t even see the policy—you see only the procedures.”
Statement issued by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio):
"Tom Wickham, in addition to being a master of the House’s rules and traditions, has the sound judgment and steady temperament required to serve as parliamentarian. Tom has earned the respect of lawmakers and staff on both sides of the aisle, and I have every confidence in him."
Wickham, who was born in Dubuque and raised in Epworth, Iowa, says his parents, an elementary school principal and a teacher, were politically active and instilled in him an interest in government. He jokes that growing up as the fifth of eight children gave him an advantage in his work (“Oftentimes, I had to be the referee between my older and younger siblings,” he says). But he also credits his time at the UI for setting his career path.
“As an undergraduate in the political science department, I took Constitutional Law with Tim Hagle, who prided himself on challenging students, and that sparked the competitive spirit in me,” he says. “The honors program served as a good launching pad to law school. I could talk to older students in the program who were planning on going to law school, and by the time I was an upperclassman, many of them were law students who served as mentors.”
Another invaluable part of his undergraduate education, Wickham says, was his participation in the UI Washington Center Internship Program, through which he spent a summer earning academic credit in Washington, D.C. He continues to work with the Washington Center to share his experiences with current interns.
Although at times he misses advocacy, Wickham says the work of the House parliamentarian is varied and stimulating.
“We might address 20 different subjects in a day, from the technical aspects of defense policy to a women’s health issue,” says Wickham, whose office also is responsible for compiling and publishing House rules and precedent. “I really enjoy working in this institution. I get to see the workings of government from a unique perspective.”
In fact, Wickham challenges those have become disillusioned with Congress—and recent polls suggest that they are in the majority—to visit the nation’s capital.
“I think coming here will raise the spirits of anyone who has lost faith in the process,” he says. “As part of my job, I get to work with my counterparts in other countries and I see what a leader the U.S. is around the globe. Many countries use our system as a model, and that’s an inspiration to me.”