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First Official Parliamentarian

July 1, 1935

In January 1955, the Senate briefly suspended its proceedings to honor seven staff members. Never before had there been such an occasion. The seven employees shared one characteristic—each had worked for the Senate for more than half a century.

The best known among this honored group was Charles Watkins. Twenty years earlier, in July 1935, Watkins had been appointed the Senate’s first official parliamentarian.

Charles Watkins had arrived in the Senate in 1904 from Arkansas to work as a stenographer. Blessed with a photographic memory, and a curiosity about Senate procedures, he eventually transferred to the Senate floor as journal clerk. In 1919 he started what became a 45-year search of the Congressional Record, back to the 1880s, for Senate decisions that interpreted the body’s individual standing rules to the legislative needs of the moment.

In 1923 Watkins replaced the ailing assistant secretary of the Senate as unofficial advisor on floor procedure to the presiding officer. From that time, he became the body’s parliamentarian, in fact if not in title. Finally, in 1935, at a time when an increased volume of New Deal-era legislation expanded opportunities for procedural confusion and mischief, he gained the actual title.

By 1949, when Watkins reached the age of 70, the Senate authorized hiring of an assistant parliamentarian to give him some relief during the all-night filibusters of that era. On one occasion in the 1950s, he worked a round-the-clock filibuster for 48 unrelieved hours.

In 1964, still on the job after 60 years, Watkins’s legendary memory began to fail, causing problems with the advice he gave to presiding officers. At the end of that year’s grueling session, Majority Leader Mike Mansfield reluctantly informed the 85-year-old "Charlie" Watkins that his tenure as parliamentarian had come to an end.

At that 1955 tribute to long-serving staff, South Dakota senator Francis Case praised Watkins’ command of parliamentary procedure. “Once his mind clasps a point, it sets like a vise. He is as a seeing-eye dog to guide the newcomers through parliamentary mazes and a rod and a staff to those who preside. It might be said that he sits only a little lower than the angels and dispenses wisdom like an oracle.”

Today, the book known as Riddick’s Senate Procedure, based on the research Watkins began in 1919, serves as a perfect memorial to this dignified and kindly man of the Senate.