Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee

WSFS Rules: Postpone Indefinitely

Yesterday I wrote about Objection to Consideration and how it lands on new business like a 16-ton weight. It is particularly jarring to newcomers who haven't been to previous meetings and have a tendency to take it personally when a bunch of Usual Suspects jump up and yell "Objection" the moment their proposals come to floor, before they've even had a chance to make their opening argument. As I pointed out yesterday, that's because you must object at the very first chance or you can't do it at all, and we end up mis-using the motion (which really is supposed to only be used against personal attacks and issues that might be harmful to the organization to even debate) because it's the only tool left in the WSFS parliamentary bag for dealing with proposals that have little hope of ever passing and are likely to clutter the agenda needlessly.

Under the basic unmodified Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised (hereafter RONR), there are other ways of clearing things off the agenda. WSFS, however, has over the years changed its rules to make it very difficult to use them, and consequently has left itself with only the most obnoxious and possibly least-well-known way of killing no-hope motions. The easiest of the currently-prohibited methods is the subsidiary motion Postpone Indefinitely (PI). This motion isn't really a motion to "postpone" (unlike, say, a motion "To postpone consideration of Item 4.1 until no earlier than 11:05 AM"), but to kill the main motion. It can be applied to any main motion like a constitutional amendment, but only if there are no other motions pending. (For instance, you can't move PI when there's a motion to Amend or to Refer to Committee pending.) If it passes, the main motion is dead for the duration of this year's meeting. (It can, naturally, be reintroduced next year; you can't tie the hands of a future Business Meeting other than by amending the constitution.) It's debatable, so (unlike Objection to Consideration) you can say why you want to kill the motion, while the proposal's proponents can counter with why we should continue to consider it. If it passes, it can be Reconsidered (that is, one of the people who voted to kill the motion can later ask that we think about it again, and the motion to Reconsider is itself debatable), although WSFS almost never Reconsiders a motion, and doing so tends to be thought of as a "parliamentary trick," particularly inasmuch as it's a concept apparently unique to American parliamentary law. The motion to Postpone Indefinitely requires only a majority vote.

WSFS prohibits Postpone Indefinitely in two different ways: Standing Rule 1.2 says, in part:
The Preliminary Business Meeting may not postpone consideration of a Constitutional amendment beyond the last Preliminary Business Meeting.
Standing Rule 5.3 says:
The motion to Postpone Indefinitely shall not be allowed.
Now, because it's prohibited by a Standing Rule, not by the Constitution, you can Suspend the Rules and Postpone Indefinitely; however, that requires a 2/3 vote and is not debatable. In effect, it's exactly the same as Objection to Consideration, although it can be moved at any time instead of only just as the motion comes before the meeting.

So why does WSFS generally prohibit or hamstring this seemingly-useful procedural motion? Well, I wasn't there when the prohibition was first made, but I've heard at least two reasons, both of which are generally plausible:
  • It's Too Easy: PI only requires a majority to kill a motion, and may appear to be "trickery."

  • It Wastes Time: Because it's a question technically different from the motion it's trying to kill, people opposed to a motion who have exhausted their right to debate the motion can use it to "renew" the debate. Given how little time we have available for debate at the Business Meeting, this is generally seen to be a bad thing.

WSFS has occasionally used Suspend the Rules and Postpone Indefinitely, mainly when motions have come up and been briefly debated before people realized that the Business Meeting really didn't want to vote for or against the motion but would prefer to duck the issue entirely.

The higher-ranking (can be made when things like Amend or Refer are pending) motion To Lay On The Table is intended not to actually kill motions, but to set them aside temporarily without a specific time for taking them back up again. For example, you might Lay on the Table a pending constitutional amendment so that a representative of a past Worldcon with a requested financial report who has only a short time to address the meeting could give the report, then Take from the Table the laid-aside motion when the report is done.

In colloquial American speech, "to Table" has come to mean "to set aside indefinitely." That may be on account of the usage of the US House of Representatives, where motions that are Laid on the Table are almost impossible to recover. This colloquial usage leads to all sorts of confusion, because in British usage, "to table" means the exact opposite of the American usage: it means "To place before the body for consideration." Famously, this caused conflicts between American and British military planners in World War II, where both groups were using the same words to mean opposite things.

Motions that have been Laid on the Table and not taken back up (Take from the Table only requires a majority vote) by the end of the meeting die. WSFS apparently didn't like using Lay on the Table to kill motions and therefore requires a 2/3 vote on the undebatable motion Lay on the Table. We almost never use it, to the extent that it's often difficult to explain to the assembly what's going on when one of the few valid usages (I cited one above) comes up.

I have been persuaded that WSFS has gone overboard in its zeal to suppress business-killing motions, to its detriment. Consequently, I'm thinking of introducing a rules change to next year's Business Meeting to allow Postpone Indefinitely to be made once again, at least in a limited form.

First, strike out the restriction in Rule 1.2. Second, modify Rule 5.3 thusly:
Rule 5.3: Postpone Indefinitely. The motion to Postpone Indefinitely (Strike From the Agenda) shall not be allowed only be in order at the Preliminary Business Meeting, shall require a 2/3 vote, and debate on the motion shall be limited to 4 minutes.
This would permit the motion to Postpone Indefinitely in its debatable form, but only at the Preliminary Business Meeting, and would limit the debate to 4 minutes. That means the person moving to PI would have up to two minutes to explain why the proposal doesn't deserve to move on to the Main Business Meeting for debate, while the proponents of the proposal would have up to two minutes to defend the proposal and justify why it deserves at least a chance at debate. By the nature of such things, debate could go into the merits of the proposal, but with only two minutes, you would need to be very efficient. (Debate could be extended, but that requires a 2/3 vote.)

Using PI at the Main Meeting would still require Suspend the Rules and would thus be undebatable, which would continue to prevent it from being used to renew debate for those people who have exhausted their right to speak. (You can't speak to a motion more than twice, nor more than once if anyone else wants to speak to it.)

I do not think that giving proponents of a motion two minutes to make their basic case for the mere consideration of a proposal is going to cause WSFS to fall apart. Furthermore, there's a chance that if such a process had been in place this year, the proponents of the YA Hugo (who appear to have taken the most offense over being OTC'd) could have said, "We'd like to refer this to a committee to report back next year, but the rules won't let us do so until the Main Meeting, so could you please give us that much of a chance?" Having their motion killed without even being able to tell people, "We know this needs more work and would like to work with the rest of you to study it further" might have seemed a lot less intimidating and threatening than the FOAD way that Objection to Consideration appears to a newcomer. Veterans of the Business Meeting have come to understand that OTC is a standard hazard of new business and try not to take personal offense at it, but I'm not sure it's that reasonable to make an implicit assumption that you shouldn't even dare participate until you've attended four or five years' worth of Business Meetings.

Here's something else that my proposal would require, and it's not something that can easily be done by rule, but by persuasion and by the Chair clamping down on the misuse of OTC. If Postpone Indefinitely is once again legal at the Business Meeting, people who have gotten used to using OTC to kill motions would need to learn a new process and accept that proponents can have at least one chance to make the case for the consideration of their proposals. OTC would (and I think should) be restricted to reprehensible and personally objectionable proposals like the "Chris Carrier" motions I discussed yesterday. That's not easy to do, but I know that if this rule change passes this year in London, I would make it clear that as the 2015 Business Meeting Chair I will consider most OTC attempts to actually be motions to Postpone Indefinitely. The meeting could of course overrule me, but it's difficult to prevent "runaways" when the meeting is packed full of willful people.

I know that not all of you are WSFS rules geeks like I am. Did this explanation make sense? Does the proposal sound reasonable to you? I floated it yesterday on the List That Shall Not Be Named, and got a mixed reaction on both substantive and technical grounds. I mostly reject the technical grounds except to add the phrase "(Strike from the Agenda)" as an alternative name for Postpone Indefinitely the same way "Call the Question, Close Debate, or Vote Now" are all alternative names for the parliamentary term of art "Previous Question." Yes, it might take a little bit of time for the Usual Suspects to get used to new procedures, but they reacted badly to Filling Blanks and Serpentine Voting the first time those ideas were shown to them, whereas today we take such things for granted.

I think we can afford to concede people two minutes in return for not looking like a bunch of pompous, arrogant, hidebound conservatives with wax in our ears.
Tags: business meeting, parliamentary procedure, wsfs

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