Reed's Parliamentary Rules
​Reed's Parliamentary Rules
Chapter VIII -- Conduct of Business
Disposal of the Main Question
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100. Forms of Action by an Assembly.— All the proceedings of an assembly which ripen into a result do so by a vote, and hence we can say of all action that it was the vote of the assembly and that the action was by vote. There are, however, different forms in which different kinds of actions are put. If an assembly desires to direct something to be done by its committees or its officers, or by any subordinate body, its will is expressed by means of an order. If it desires to express its opinion or purpose, or make a statement of facts, a resolution is the usual method. If a legislative body it enacts laws by means of a bill which when passed by all those entitled to act on it becomes “an act.”

101. Introduction of Business.— After an organization has been had the assembly is then ready to proceed to business. The beginning of business is its introduction by a member. Only members have a right to present business to the assembly. The presiding officer may lay before the assembly certain kinds of business, but this is always by virtue of law. The presiding officer is under no obligation to present any communication sent him by persons outside the body over which he presides. That would be to confer upon outsiders one of the attributes of membership. The only way in which a person not a member can reach the assembly is through a member.

102. How Business May Be Introduced.— Whenever a member desires to introduce business he rises in his place and addresses the presiding officer by his title as “Mr. Chairman,” “Mr. Moderator.” The Chair thereupon recognizes the member, and says, “Mr. A. has the floor,” or simply, “Mr. A.” The member then has the floor, and states his proposition, which must be reduced to writing at the request of the Chair or any member. Thereupon the chairman states or puts the question to the assembly, and after the question has been thus proposed the assembly is said to be in possession of the question.

It will be seen by the proceedings just described that the member in order to introduce business must first obtain the floor, and in order to obtain the floor must first be recognized by the Chair. Until the member has the floor the proposal of business is not in order, but the member may state his purpose in rising if he demands the floor to introduce a privileged motion or any motion which has prior right, such as a motion to adjourn or a point of order.

103. Motion Must Be in Writing.— The motion should always be in writing or reduced to writing at the clerk's desk. If required by the presiding officer or any member the member must present it in writing. This applies only to the main question and to such motions as are variable. The common motions, which are always in the same form, may be presented orally.

104. The Second.— After the motion has been made it must have the support of another member, who rises in his place and says, “I second the motion.” This requirement of a second is based on the idea that if the motion has no other friend than the mover it is hardly worth the while of the assembly to spend time on it.

105. Second in the House of Representatives.— No second is required in the House of Representatives to an ordinary motion. The motion to suspend the rules requires a second if demanded, which must consist of a majority of the members present, ascertained by tellers.

106. Petitions.— A petition should be signed by the petitioner and must be presented by a member, who rises in his place, states the contents, and moves that it be received. When this motion is seconded it is proposed to the assembly, and the assembly decides to receive it or not. Usually, however, a petition is received without even the formality of a motion, but the question of reception may be raised by any member. When received it is to be acted on like any other kind of business. It may be the subject of a resolution, or order, or bill, or may be referred to a committee, or laid on the table, or postponed.

107. Petitions in the House of Representatives.— Petitions in the House of Representatives are indorsed by the member presenting them with his name and the reference or disposition to be made of it, and presented to the Clerk by being placed in a box affixed to the Clerk's desk; and these petitions, except such as in the judgment of the Speaker are of obscene or insulting character, are disposed of by reference as requested by the member, in accordance with the rules, and entered on the Journal and published in the Record.

108. Motion When in Possession of the Assembly.— The motion is not in possession of the assembly until it has been seconded and stated to the assembly by the presiding officer. Until that time no member has a right to make any motion in relation to it, or debate it, or to ask the floor for either purpose. On the other hand, until the presiding officer has so stated it to the assembly, the member offering it, either at his own suggestion or that of another, may modify his proposition. After it has been stated he can not modify it except by consent of the assembly or in the regular way of amendment.

109. Main Question.— The business thus in possession of the House is called the “main question.” It is subject to many motions, which are particularly enumerated in their relations with each other in Sec. 163.)

After introduction two courses are open to the assembly, refusal to consider or consideration.

110. The Question of Consideration.— The assembly, upon hearing the proposition or question stated by the Chair, may conclude that it does not desire to consider it at all. In order to determine this any member has a right to raise the question of consideration, which he does usually in this form: “Mr. Chairman, on that I raise the question of consideration.” Thereupon, without debate, the assembly divides upon the question of consideration. If decided in the negative, the main question remains as if it had not been brought up; if decided in the affirmative, the business then proceeds. The question of consideration applies only to the main question, and not to any other motion. The question of consideration may be raised even against a bill ordered by the assembly to be proceeded with at a fixed time, or against an order of the day, or even against a conference report.*

(*In some treatises it is said that the question of consideration can not be raised except by special rule. The question of consideration is like the question of the reception of a report. In both cases the question used always to be put as a matter of course, whether the business should be considered or whether the report should be received. In both cases, also, it has come to be the custom for the Chair not to put the question, but to require it to be raised from the floor. If the question is not raised, then consideration and reception are both matters of course.
    The rules of the House of Representatives that the question, "Will the House now consider it?" shall not be put unless demanded by a member, is plainly not a creation of the question of consideration, but a limitation of a custom already established, and implies that without that limitation by rules the Speaker would have to put the question of consideration, even if it had not been raised.)

111. Point of Order.— Another method of preventing consideration is to raise a point of order, which is in substance an objection that the question can not be considered because it conflicts with rules and orders already established, or with proceedings already determined upon by the assembly. The point of order is more fully described in Sec. 182et seq*

(*The point of order is, of course, not to be classed with the subsidiary motions. It is an incidental motion, and mentioned here out of its logical place because it is one of the direct methods of changing the position of the question. As between it and the question of consideration it should be decided first; because if the question can not be considered it is not worth while to vote that it should be.)

112. Time for Making These Objections.— Both these objections to present action must be presented before consideration has been entered upon. After debate has begun or other action has been taken it is too late.

113. Other Methods of Putting the Question Aside.— The motions to lay on the table, postpone to a day certain and to postpone indefinitely, to commit, and even the motion to adjourn, are also methods of stopping present consideration. While they are usually employed later in the proceedings, they will now be described. (For motion to adjourn see Sec. 177.)

114. To Lay on the Table.— This motion is practically a motion to suspend the consideration of a question during the pleasure of the House. It carries with it all questions connected with the special question on which it is moved. If it be moved on the main question, then all amendments go with it; if moved on the amendment, then the main question goes on the table also. This is upon the very solid ground that you can not go on with an amendment when the main subject is no longer before the House, and can not go on with the main question when there exists amendments liable to be called up at the pleasure of the House. When a question laid upon the table is again called up, it comes up before the assembly precisely as it was prior to the motion to lay it on the table, with all the amendments and motions then pending; but the motion to take from the table is not a privileged motion.

115. Effect of Motion in the House of Representatives.— The motion to lay upon the table in the United States House of Representatives defeats the proposition. It is never taken up again. This differs from the custom of all other assemblies and leads to other modifications. For instance, laying on the table a motion to reconsider does not carry with it the original question, but is equivalent to a refusal to reconsider. Hence, also, in the House a conference report can not be laid on the table, otherwise a conference report might be put beyond the reach of either house.

116. To Lay On the Table—Renewal.— If the motion to lay on the table be decided in the negative, the original question proceeds as if the motion had not been made, and the motion may be renewed when there has been such progress as to make the motion substantially a new one.

117. To Lay On the Table—Debate, Precedence, and Amendment.— A motion to lay on the table is not debatable. It takes precedence of all other subsidiary motions except the question of consideration, but yields to privileged questions. This motion can not be amended.

118. To Postpone to a Day Certain.— The title describes the motion. Whenever the assembly thinks it would prefer to have time given members to inform themselves as to a question, or when it desires to take up some other question, then the motion to postpone to a day certain, naming the day, is a proper one to make. This motion is debatable, but the debate does not involve the merits of the main question. It is also amendable, and is inferior to a motion to lay upon the table. It is superior to a motion to amend, and of equal rank with the motions to commit, to indefinitely postpone, and for the previous question.

119. Motion to Commit.— Whenever an assembly finds that a question before it can be more satisfactorily proceeded with by means of a committee, the motion to commit will accomplish that object. This motion can be made at once upon the stating of the question, or later, after discussion and efforts to amend have shown the need of more careful investigation than the assembly itself can give it. Where the assembly has much business to perform and standing committees have been appointed, the committal is usually as of course to a committee on first presentation, and the assembly acts on the report of the committee. The fact, however, that a committee has reported on the question does not preclude the motion to commit. In default of other regulation in the rules, the motion to commit may name the committee or create one.

120. Motion to Commit—Debate and Amendment.— The motion to commit is debatable, but the merits of the main question are not open to discussion on this motion, since that discussion will be in order when the committee reports. If, however, the proposition be to commit with instructions as to the main question, then debate can be had on the merits. The motion to commit is amendable, and ranks with postponement to a day certain, indefinite postponement, and the previous question.

121. Motion for Indefinite Postponement.— This motion is designed to avoid a direct vote on the question itself, and to give the opponents of the bill an opportunity to try their strength at any stage of the bill. If decided in the affirmative, the bill is defeated; if in the negative, the bill proceeds as if the motion had not been made. It serves the original purpose of the English previous question, as it was under the early practice.

122. Motion for Indefinite Postponement— Debate and Amendment.— The motion for indefinite postponement is not only debatable itself, but throws open the whole question for debate. Inasmuch as an affirmative vote on this motion may decide the main question, the merits of the question must be open for discussion. The motion can not be amended. It ranks with the motion to postpone to a day certain, to commit, and for the previous question.

123. Previous Question.— The previous question in England was also originally a motion intended to avoid a direct vote on the subject before the assembly. It was first employed in what were then considered “delicate matters,” which involved high personages, and was a very ingenious method of avoidance. It still prevails in the House of Commons. There, when the previous question is moved, it is moved by the enemies of the proposition, and is moved for the purpose of putting the measure aside, and not for the purpose of suppressing debate and bringing the subject to a final decision. There the proposers of the motion desire to have a negative decision; there the motion for the previous question can be debated. Hence it can not be used for the purpose of closure. The manner of putting it is, “Shall the main question be now put?” If decided in the negative, since the main question can not be put, the House having voted not to have it done, it must necessarily be laid aside; if it be decided in the affirmative, then the main question, without amendment, and without even permitting a motion to adjourn, must be at once put and decided.

124. The Previous Question in America— Gradual Evolution.— The previous question in the United States has come to be quite a different motion from the one just described, both in purpose and in result. It was originally moved by the friends of the measure to cut off debate and amendment, and cause a final decision on the main question. It has reached its present condition by slow growth, and answers a very great need in a large assembly. Without it debate might have no end, especially where written speeches are permitted. At first we were contented with the English motion, simply reversed in its intentions and purposes. They used it to defeat the measure and we used it to forward it. But it was soon seen that there was grave inconvenience in going back to the main question, overthrowing all intervening motions, including amendments, and at the same time leaving the whole subject practically open to debate. It was also no longer sensible, when the previous question was moved in the interest of progress, that a negative result should throw the measure aside for the day.

Hence, in view of these things, experience has established in America the previous question as follows:

125. Previous Question Now in Use.— Instead of the formula previously employed, “Shall the main question be now put?” the presiding officer should say, “Mr. 'A.' demands the previous question. As many as are in favor of ordering the previous question will say aye; as many as are opposed will say no.” This question is not debatable and can not be amended. The results of the motion are as follows: If determined in the negative, the consideration goes on as if the motion had never been made; if decided in the affirmative, then the presiding officer at once, without debate, proceeds to put, first, the amendments pending, and then the main question as amended. If an adjournment is had after the previous question is ordered, the subject comes up the first thing after the reading of the Minutes or Journal the next day, and the previous question still operates, making the main question privileged over all other business, whether new or unfinished.

126. The Previous Question—Rank.— The previous question is of equal rank with the motion to postpone to a day certain, to postpone indefinitely, and to commit. It can not be moved while either of the others is pending.

The Previous Question in the United States House.— The previous question can not be moved in the United States Senate. In the House “the previous question may be asked and ordered upon a single motion, a series of motions allowable under the rules, or an amendment or amendments; or may be made to embrace all authorized motions or amendments, and include the bill to its engrossment and third reading, and then, on renewal and second of said motion, to its passage or rejection.” It is there, however, in order, pending the motion for the previous question, and even after its adoption, to commit, either with or without instructions.

It will be seen that this rule extends the previous question to all debatable and amendable motions. This is a very great addition to the previous question of general parliamentary law, which is not applicable to any question except the main question.

127. The Previous Question—Practical Suggestions.— In small assemblies there is but little use for the previous question; and the prejudice is so strong against shutting off debate that it is often rather a dangerous motion to make, and should be made only after the assembly has plainly exhausted the subject.

In large assemblies, especially of the legislative kind, there should be a special rule giving the previous question a higher place than it has under general parliamentary law. It should follow the motion to lay upon the table and precede all the rest; it should also be made applicable to all debatable amendments and motions. In large assemblies everywhere, especially where there are permanent party divisions, it is impossible to accomplish public business without the power of closing debate.

128. Closure of Debate in the House of Commons and Chamber of Deputies.— In England, as we have seen, the previous question does not close debate, and until quite recently there was apparently no power even in the majority to cause discussion to cease. But most evils discover their own remedies, and in 1881, after the scenes described in Sec. 223, the House of Commons carefully considered the question at different times, and the result is that, with the approval of the Speaker, the House can close the debate in a way which seems substantially like our own, by a major vote, provided not less than a hundred members have voted in the affirmative. It should be added that in the House of Commons the quorum is forty, the usual total six hundred and seventy-five. In France the closure (clôture) has been for a long time in use, and requires in the Chamber of Deputies the vote of a majority only. In that body a majority must be present to constitute a quorum.