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Michigan Senate Secretary Margaret O’Brien speaks with the daughter of Senator Aric Nesbitt, the chamber’s president pro tempore, who’s seated at left.

Happy in the Background: Michigan Senate Secretary Margaret O’Brien

By Margaret O’Brien | Aug. 24, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print


Most people have no idea what a secretary or clerk in the legislature does. And that’s OK. Our jobs are not meant to be front and center unless our role requires us to read various documents into the record.

There are many reasons I love my job as secretary of the Michigan Senate: working with a great staff, being involved in the legislative process and providing the public with access to documents and proceedings are among them. Perhaps the biggest reason is that I know how important it is to the success of legislators.

As a former senator, I know too well the stresses on our elected officials in the Legislature. As they work tirelessly to engage the public, listen to input, research issues, craft public policy, respond to constituent needs, communicate to their district, attend community events and just maybe see their family, they do not have the time to attend to the basic processes that support the legislative process.

This is where my team comes in.

Regardless of the policy position, bill or day of the year, our team ensures every bill, resolution, initiative petition or other document follows the exact process required by our rules of authority. We strive to ensure that no bill or other legal action will be thrown out in court because we skipped the proper process.

No Detail Overlooked

While serving in office, I tackled hard subjects: education, sexual assault, domestic violence, senior safety, auto insurance reform and more. Many of these issues required my attention during my entire legislative career. Others consumed my time seven days a week until they crossed the finish line. Some were mentally, emotionally and physically taxing, which often left little time or energy for my other duties or my family. (For eight years, I worked seven days a week except for a rare vacation.) I had nothing left to give; I gave it all trying to serve my community in the best manner possible.

Most partisan staff also experience the same challenges as the elected officials—always trying to accomplish more than is reasonable in one day. Regardless of the topic, there is no way my staff and I could have crossed the finish line without having a team of quiet and diligent people who ensured every step was followed, all timelines were met and no detail was overlooked. To be honest, I had no idea how crucial they were until I joined their ranks.

During my Senate and House terms, I was one of the elected presiding officers; I interacted with the secretary and clerk often. Yet I had no real concept of their importance beyond me saying the right words and making the proper parliamentary ruling. Now on the lower rostrum, I have more insight into how my team helps senators and staff do their important work every day.

To the right of where I sit in the chamber are my bills clerks, including Angela. When I was a senator, all I knew was that Angela always had a smile for me and encouraging words. She seemed to have the answers I needed. Now I know that she and her partner are integral to ensuring proper documentation on the bill linens, producing the legislative calendar, double- and triple-checking titles, and entering data into our legislative system, which provides real-time updates to the public on legislative actions and more.

To my left are the journal clerks. They produce the official record of the Senate, which I seem to reference every day as I search for potential rulings, precedence, context or past actions. When I was a lawmaker, the amending clerks made sure amendments were proper and did not violate our constitution or cause a conflict in another bill. The enrolling clerks ensured that what was passed was properly formatted and had no errors that would kill my bill before it went to the governor. (Who knew that vacating enrollment of a bill was a pathway to fix a bill? My team knows!) The committee clerks did all the same details in committee and made sure I stayed on track. Senate TV made my passionate speeches easily viewable. (Now I see their bigger importance of providing a transparent government.)

A Privilege to Serve

I am happy that my team and I are in the background. We provide a valuable service that allows legislators and their staff to focus on their important work. When I see a weary legislator who is tired from the burdens of office, I know that my team will ensure no steps are missed. We do not care about the topic, the policy position or speeches. Our charge is narrow and focused, and we allow for legislators and their staff to be heavily engaged where their need is the greatest.

It is a privilege to serve our legislators. It is my hope that we lift a tiny but substantial burden from their shoulders as they focus on their important yet never-ending work.

Margaret O’Brien currently serves as secretary of the Michigan Senate. She served in the Michigan Senate from 2015 to 2018 and in the Michigan House from 2011 to 2014. Michigan has a full-time Legislature with sessions starting in January and ending in December.

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