While most of the Democratic faithful view today’s conventions as a largely ceremonial event with few surprises, some aspects of the past remain — including the tapping of a referee to ensure the nomination goes off without a hitch.
At the center of that effort is Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), arguably one of the Hill’s most institutional wonks, who is serving for the fourth time as the national party’s convention parliamentarian.
A 23-year veteran of the House, Hoyer served for more than a decade on the House Administration Committee and in so doing developed a reputation for objectivity and a knowledge of Congressional rules and procedures.
So in 1992, when then-Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) and convention organizers tapped him to serve as the parliamentarian for the convention in New York City, Hoyer gladly accepted. And he’s been asked by convention planners to assume the same role in every convention since.
“The parliamentarian is a critically important job if there comes a point, which [does] from time to time, where there are disputes within the Caucus on how to do things,” Hoyer said in an interview. “You need to be fair and make sure the convention runs properly. I think I was chosen because I’m an institutional Member who is fair.”
Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), who served as the House Democratic leader for eight years, seconds that motion.
“There is nobody better to do this job than Steny,” Gephardt said. “There are many quirky things that can come up at conventions, and parliamentarians must command respect and trust,” Gephardt added. “I’ve served with Steny for 26 years. He has always been respected by everybody, and he has always been a leader.”
With the job comes with it five deputies from across the country. Part of the parliamentarian’s responsibility is to settle disputes over procedural questions, respond to points of order or personal privilege from delegates and ensure against discrepancies in delegate voting.
Philip McNamara, director of party affairs and delegate selection for the Democratic National Committee, worked with Hoyer during the 2000 convention and will again this year. He said Hoyer has the appropriate, judicious demeanor for the job.
“It takes somebody with a calm personality, who is fair and impartial and who will make a ruling that not only is consistent with the rules, but in the best interest of the party and of fairness,” he said.
Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), who served as a deputy parliamentarian with Hoyer at the 2000 Los Angeles convention, called Hoyer a “natural one” for the job, given he is the No. 2 House Democrat and has an affinity for the institution of Congress.
He said that even though times have changed, having such a position at the convention is “an acknowledgement that the Congress — notwithstanding the last year or two — has stood for parliamentary procedure and rules of fairness and decorum.”
“He’s done it for years,” added Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the Administration Committee who served side-by-side with Hoyer. “Steny is well regarded by his colleagues as a fair-minded person. He’s always held to his beliefs and party principles, but he’s never injected unfair politics into his decisions.”
Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), a Chief Deputy Whip who serves with Hoyer, said the role is “a good fit” for Hoyer who has integrity and “knows the ropes and knows the angles.”
Hoyer, who has only missed two conventions since 1968, said he doesn’t expect this year’s Boston event to present any major scuffles. But he’s ready anyway.
“There shouldn’t be glitches,” said Hoyer. “But if there are, we will be there to work it out.”
“It’s still a convention, there still are procedures that take place,” Crowley added. “You still need to make sure things move smoothly and on time.”
Most agree that the convention parliamentarian, and the deputies, had a much more difficult job years ago, when floor fights erupted over the party platform and even who would be the nominee.
One of the most notable battles in recent memory took place inside and outside the 1968 convention in Chicago. Deep divisions over then-President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War policies split the delegates and erupted into violent protests in the streets of the city.
“There isn’t the controversy there used to be,” Hoyer acknowledged with a laugh. “I probably won’t be embroiled in any controversial, tough fights.”