Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee
kevin_standlee

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Business Meeting: Rules to Debate By

Notwithstanding my previous post about not getting too carried away about the rules, those rules are important, and it helps if people have at least a general understanding of how they work in order to get the most of our their meeting experience.

A couple of the basic premises of a deliberative assembly like WSFS are One subject at a time and One speaker at a time. But after that, thing can get a little complicated. We'll distribute a double-sided handout that lists most of the procedural motions, but the handout can't take the time that I can here to talk about how those motions work in operation.

Most important actions taken at the WSFS Business Meeting -- in particular, amendments to the WSFS Constitution, which are what use up most of the meeting's time -- are main motions. You can only have one main motion pending at a time. If you need to take up some other main motion, you have to set the current one aside by one of several methods. A few people get confused because constitutional amendments are, after all, called "amendments," and there is a procedural motion (see below) called "Amend." These are different things. A motion to amend the constitution is technically an incidental main motion. The ordinary motion to Amend can only be made when something else is pending, and it is a motion to change the pending motion in some way. For example, if there's a constitutional change pending, you can move to amend it by changing some of the words in the proposal.

Now, there are a whole bunch of procedural motions, and they can be made while a main motion is pending. As in the example above, you can move to amend a main motion. In order to keep things orderly, the motions have what is known as "rank" among themselves. You can only make a motion if it outranks the currently pending motion, in which case the motion you're making is said to take precedence over the other motion, which yields to your motion. The other motions haven't gone away; they just sit their waiting their turn. We commonly use the analogy of a stack, with the main motion always sitting at the bottom of the stack because main motions take precedence over nothing and yield to everything. At meetings where I have presided, I think the stack has reached as many as seven motions deep; however, I was once told at a California State Association of Parliamentarians meeting that it's technically possible to push over 100 motions into the stack if you do it in precisely the right order. One of the jobs that I usually give to my deputy is keeping track of the stack for me, so I can concentrate on the immediate parliamentary situation and don't have to remember what was pending down-stack.

Here is a list of the motions that have rank among themselves. Remember that they all outrank the main motion. The motions listed first outrank those that follow them. (2/3) means that they normally take a 2/3 vote (everything else takes a simple majority), and (D) means that they are normally debatable (everything else is not debatable).

Privileged Motions
1. Fix the Time to Which to Adjourn
2. Adjourn
3. Recess
4. Question of Privilege
5. Call for Orders of the Day

Subsidiary Motions
6. Lay On The Table (2/3)
7. Previous Question (End Debate) (2/3)
8. Limit/Extend Limits of Debate (2/3)
9. Postpone Definitely (D)
10. Refer to Committee (D)
11. Amend (D)
12. Postpone Indefinitely (2/3)

If you've read Robert's Rules of Order, you may be getting excited right now and getting ready to correct me, because there are non-standard things about this list. That's because WSFS standing rules modify the standard model. WSFS requires a 2/3 vote to lay a motion on the table, and it effectively makes Postpone Indefinitely both undebatable and requires it to get a 2/3 vote because it actually prohibits the motion, meaning you have to Suspend the Rules to make it. That's a pity IMO, because Postpone Indefinitely is a very useful motion, but I guess historically it was abused at some meetings, so it was prohibited except in some extraordinary circumstances.

The five Privileged Motions have high rank because their very nature obliges them to have to be able to interrupt almost anything. They usually have nothing to do with the immediately pending question.

Fix the Time to Which to Adjourn doesn't get used very often. It schedules a future meeting that is a continuation of the current meeting. WSFS would only use this if somehow it ran out of meeting time and had to work out a way to hold an overflow session.

Adjourn ranks very high, and thus inspires the (technically not quite correct) saying "A motion to Adjourn is always in order." But note that most of the time you see a motion to Adjourn, it's not really this powerful override version, but the incidental main motion to Adjourn, made with nothing pending. I've only seen Adjourn made in its privileged form at a WSFS meeting once, and I was the one who made it, and it failed.

Recess, on the other hand, gets used in privileged form fairly often, usually when we want to take a short break during a given day's meeting. This is particularly likely when we've acquired funding for a coffee service and the meeting has lasted more than an hour.

Note that we Adjourn each day's Business Meeting when we're done for the day; we do not recess for the day. When the final meeting is done, and when we want to "close the session," we Adjourn sine die ("without date"), and that's it for another year. Even if future meetings that year were scheduled -- we usually schedule more meetings than we expect to need -- they won't happen after adjournment sine die

Questions of Privilege are a class of motions that can interrupt pending business such as "I can't hear the speaker; would you turn up the volume." They rarely require votes.

Call for Orders of the Day is a request that we stick to the agenda. It takes 2/3 vote to diverge from the adopted agenda.

The seven Subsidiary Motions generally arise out of the Main Motion (or each other; some subsidiary motions can be applied to each other, such as Amending a motion to Refer to Committee).

Lay on the Table is sometimes loosely called "to table," which is unfortunate, especially because in American English, "to table" means "set aside" whereas in British English, it means "bring up for discussion." In parliamentary law, this motion means "set aside the stack of pending motions without setting a time for taking them up again." Once a stack has been laid on the table, you get it back by moving to Take it From the Table when nothing is pending. You can't move "to lay the motion on the table until tomorrow" -- that is actually Postpone Definitely (see below).

WSFS requires a 2/3 vote for Lay on the Table, mainly because people improperly use it as a device for killing main motions. Legislative bodies do this, which is why "to table" has become a synonym for "kill the proposal." Some parliamentary authorities allow this, but Robert's Rules frowns on it.

Previous Question is a motion that ends the debate on the immediately pending motion and brings it to an immediate vote. If it passes, you can still move a higher-ranking motion, but not a lower one, and no further debate is allowed. Also, if there are multiple motions stacked up, you need to specify the scope of your Previous Question -- you can go as far down the stack as you like, all the way to the bottom, or just the immediately pending question.

People often rudely yell out "Call the Question!" without having been recognized by the Chair. The Chair should ignore such calls. If the Chair recognizes someone (that is, calls on him or her to speak) and that person says "Call the Question," the Chair will take it as a motion for the Previous Question. While this is sometimes called End Debate, the motion's effect is broader than that, since it also shuts off the making of lower-ranking subsidiary motions.

WSFS also has a standing rule that requires the Chair to ask for a show of hands of those people who still want to debate the pending (stacked) motions before putting Previous Question to a vote.

Save everyone time: when the Chair asks if anyone still wishes to speak to a question and nobody answers, don't pipe up and move Previous Question. The Chair will respond to silence by proceeding to a vote.

Limit or Extend Limits of Debate does what it says: it changes the debate time limits established for a motion. WSFS has an exception here in that when a main motion first comes up (usually at the Preliminary Business Meeting), there is a mechanism for setting the initial debate time limits by majority vote. After that, use this motion to change it. It's not unusual to see this used with "unanimous consent," as in "If there is no objection, the speaker is allowed one minute to complete her remarks."

Postpone Definitelyis the motion you tried to make when you moved "to table this proposal until tomorrow." We don't actually use this motion often at WSFS for main motions, but there are times when we'll move to postpone reports. When WSFS wants to postpone action on a motion, it usually turns to the next motion.

Refer to Committee sends the stack of pending motions to a committee -- and it can be either one of the various Standing Committees of WSFS or of the Business Meeting, or to a special ad hoc committee created for that purpose. It is common for a piece of new business, particularly a constitutional amendment, to be referred to a committee at the Preliminary Business Meeting in order to iron out bugs in the wording or to find a compromise that people who feel strongly about it are willing to accept.

Amend is a motion to change the pending question in some way. It could be a simple wording change ("strike out 'five' and insert 'ten'"), a complete substitute proposal (this is actually fairly common with constitutional amendments), or something in between. The motion Create a Blank is a special form of amendment useful when trying to deal with a situation when there are multiple very similar values to be considered, such as "debate shall be limited to ___ minutes" or "sites must be at least _____ from the administering site to be eligible."

Amend is probably the most complicated procedural motion in the book, and there is no way that I can go into all of its variations here. In unmodified Robert's, the motion is recursive once; that is, you can amend an amendment (and I don't mean a motion to Amend the Constitution; see my comments above). WSFS finds this too confusing and prohibits second-order amendments under most circumstances.

Amendments must be germane -- that is, they have to have something to do with the main motion -- but they can be hostile -- that is, they can reverse the meaning of a proposal. For example, if the main motion was "To commend Mr. X for his actions," it would be in order to move "to strike out 'commend' and insert 'censure'", which would reverse the main proposal. Be careful about this, however; it would not be in order to move "to insert 'not' before 'commend'", because you get the same effect by defeating the original proposal. "Not commend" and "censure" are different things.

There is No Such Thing as a "Friendly Amendment": It is common, but wrong, to assume that if the maker of a motion says, "I accept that as a friendly amendment" after a proposal has been stated and the debate begun, then the motion is modified without a vote. This is wrong. Once a motion has been stated by the Chair and debate (or subsidiary motions) begun, it belongs to the meeting, not the maker. Now, simple amendments or ones that are obviously uncontroversial can be handled by unanimous consent. ("Without objection, the last sentence will be struck out from the proposal.") Also, before the motion is actually stated by the chair and the debate started, a member can ask (through the chair) if the maker would consider a change, and the maker can agree at that point. It's usually a good idea to keep such changes simple, because it's very easy to get lost in a complex change. In any event, I know that I dislike the phrase "Friendly Amendment" and will correct people who try to use it as a way of getting around the normal amendment process. Besides, if you're certain the change is simple and uncontroversial, try saying, "Mr. Chairman, I ask unanimous consent to amend the motion by ..."

Postpone Indefinitely kills the main motion without taking a direct vote on it. This is remarkably handy when someone makes a proposal that the meeting doesn't want to adopt, but would rather not reject, either. For example, suppose someone moved at the Preliminary Business Meeting, "Resolved, that the Business Meeting encourages all members to vote for the Hollister in 2008 Worldcon bid." Well, adopting this motion is bad, as the BM shouldn't be taking sides in site selection, but rejecting it is almost as bad, because it could be interpreted as meaning the meeting dislikes the bid and doesn't want people to vote for it. Better to postpone it indefinitely and avoid the issue. Because under Robert's this motion is debatable and can be used to "reactivate" the debate time for someone who has exhausted his/her right to speak (you're only allowed to speak twice to any given motion, and only once if anyone who hasn't yet spoken still wants a turn), WSFS prohibits this motion in its ordinary form; however, you can move to Suspend the Rules and Postpone Indefinitely, which is not debatable and requires a 2/3 vote.

There are two other classes of procedural motions that don't fall into this neat hierarchy, and I'll discuss them in a subsequent posting.
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