Reed's Parliamentary Rules
Reed's Parliamentary Rules
Chapter XIII -- Debate and Decorum
Home | Index Previous | Next 

212. Object of Debate—Duties of Members.— The purpose of debate is to produce unity of sentiment in the assembly by such a comparison of views as will enable a majority to form a just judgment on the subject before them for action. As the interchange of views in debate necessarily involves criticism of the views presented, and as criticism of views is liable to pass into criticism of the author, a debate may degenerate into a dispute, and the object of debate be entirely lost sight of. To avoid this, and to render discussion an appeal to reason and sentiment, and not an appeal to personal passions, there are many parliamentary devices.
Among them is the requirement that the member shall never address any one but the presiding officer. He must not allude to any member by name, but by some descriptive expression, like “The gentleman who last addressed the assembly,” “the gentleman from Virginia,” “the noble and learned lord,” “the gallant gentleman, the member from Portsmouth.” Such expressions import respect, and are in themselves a great restraint. Members must not use harsh expressions about other members, must not impute motives, but must always attack arguments and not the men who make them. Members may not abuse the rules of the House in order to obstruct public business. On the other hand, the members who are not speaking must be silent, refrain from expressions of disrespect, or applause, must not read papers or pass between the member speaking and the presiding officer. They must not interrupt the member speaking without his consent. They must enter and leave the chamber properly and quietly.

Such are in general the duties of members to each other after the debate commences.

213. Beginning of Debate.— After a question has been presented to the assembly by a member and seconded, and then proposed by the presiding officer, it is open to debate, and the member who first rises is entitled to the floor to debate. Who rises first is always, in practice, determined by the presiding officer; and while it seems to be generally admitted, following very old precedents, that the assembly may otherwise order, in point of fact the recognition by the Chair in modern times is seldom, and perhaps never, disputed. Of course there may be cases where the assembly might properly be called on to determine who should address it. In the United States House of Representatives the recognition by the Speaker is never questioned. This is right, for any other course would inevitably lead to confusion. If but one member rises, he will of course be recognized.

214. Rules Guiding the Presiding Officer in Recognitions.— If two or more rise, the presiding officer determines, but in determining he should be governed by certain rules. He ought to recognize first the mover of the proposition; not as of right, but because it seems most natural that the mover of the question should first explain it. Then if other members rise to debate, he should call upon a member opposed, and so alternate the debate. In general the presiding officer should call upon members to speak in such a way as will cause all sides of the question to be discussed.

It may be proper here to remark, that in this and all other things the first duty of the presiding officer should always be to do what the assembly wishes, having always in mind those permanent wishes embodied in the special rules and in parliamentary law. For example, if there be a question of recognition between members who desire to make motions not privileged, the presiding officer should be governed in all proper cases by what he thinks the wish of the assembly.

Note.— In the French Chamber of Deputies the rules recognize the right of a member to have his name listed for recognition, and he may present it to the secretaries any time after the deposit of the report on the question. A similar rule prevails in the Italian Chamber.

215. Member Can Speak But Once.— A member can speak but once on the same question at the same stage. A member, however, who has spoken on the main question has the right to speak on each amendment as it arises. This rule does not apply to an assembly sitting in Committee of the Whole. There any member may speak as often as he can get the floor.

216. Relevancy in Debate.— All debate should be relevant and confined to the subject of debate. The subject of debate is always the question directly before the assembly, whether it be the main question or any subsidiary or incidental motion. It is the question last submitted to the assembly. When business begins and the main question is stated by the Chair, that is the subject of the debate. If an amendment is proposed and stated by the Chair, that is then the subject of debate, and not the main question. If there then comes up a motion to commit, the motion to commit while pending is the debatable matter. If the latest motion is not debatable, then all debate ceases until that motion is decided.

Although the distinction can be stated thus sharply in words, it is often difficult to rule upon it in practice. To discuss an amendment involves more or less the main question, as does also a motion to commit; yet discussion of the main question in its relations to an amendment and in its relations to a motion to commit are very different from a discussion of the main question pure and simple. Nevertheless, a patient presiding officer and a good-natured assembly can do much to confine debate to its proper channels. The best course for a presiding officer in most cases is to interfere only where the irrelevancy is very great and is leading to confusion. Sometimes the pending motion, as, for example, the motion for indefinite postponement, being the indirect equivalent of a negative vote on the main question, involves the main question and all amendments. In that case the subject of debate would be the whole range of pending propositions.

217. Yielding the Floor.— A member having the floor may yield it for a question addressed to himself without losing his right to continue, for the very act of submitting to an interrogation involves the retaking the floor for the reply.

So, also, when he yields for a motion to adjourn, or to take a recess, or that the Committee of the Whole arise, he is entitled to resume if either motion is negatived. So, also, if the motion is carried, he is entitled to resume at the next session when the subject is again before either assembly or committee. But in all other cases yielding the floor means abandoning it to the assembly. The member on the floor has a right to yield for the motions mentioned because they are indifferent motions simply affecting the sitting of the body. He has no right to yield to a particular member for another kind of motion, because that would be to give him the power of recognition, and make him chairman without the ceremony of election. If he yields he must yield to the assembly for all purposes.

218. Yielding the Floor—House of Representatives.— In the House of Representatives it has for a long time been the custom for the member to control the hour allowed to him in such manner that he can yield any portion of that time to any other member or members. It therefore sometimes happens that the member who gets the floor distributes all his time and does not speak at all himself. This, however, is in derogation of parliamentary law.

219. Informal Remarks.— While a judicious presiding officer in most cases confines the assembly as near as may be to the formal rules of debate, it often happens that the settlement of points of procedure and of the terms of an amendment can be facilitated by a tolerance of informal remarks and suggestions which bring opposing members to an agreement. This, however, can not be permitted when any member objects.

220. When the Right of Debate Ceases.— The right of debate does not cease until the assembly so orders by the adoption of the previous question or until the main question has been voted upon. Even after the affirmative has been taken a member may claim a right to debate provided the noes have not been taken. If, however, there are several ways of taking the vote, as is usual, viz., by sound of voice, by rising vote, and by yeas and nays, the decision by the first method precludes debate, even if the other methods be called for afterward.

221. Methods of Preserving Order.— It is the duty of the presiding officer to maintain order, which he does by calling on the members as a body to be in order whenever he notices disorder. While he is so doing, the business before the assembly is suspended until order is restored. If this is not sufficient, and any member persists in disorderly action, he is specifically called to order, and if he does not cease, or if he raises any question as to whether he be in order or not, then the assembly determines what shall be done, on motion of a member.

The action of calling to order may be taken by the presiding officer of his own motion, or at the suggestion of a member who rises in his place and raises a question of order.

222. Disorderly Words in Debate.— Whenever unparliamentary words are used in debate, any member may call to order the member speaking, and ask to have the words taken down, provided he does so at once. Thereupon the member called to order sits down, and the assembly having heard read the words complained of, acts upon the case by motion or otherwise. The member may first be heard by way of explanation. Of course if the member denies having used the words the assembly must pass upon that question first, or the words may be incorporated by way of recital into the motion proposing punishment.

223. Time of Taking Down Words.— Mr. Jefferson lays down the rule that the objectionable words should be taken down after the remarks of the member have been finished. The rule was also stated to be that they could not be taken down if any other member had spoken or any business had intervened. The modern rule, however, is that the words should be taken down at once, as soon as may be, after utterance. Thereupon at once action is to be had by the assembly. Such action proposed may be in the nature of punishment, in which case the member should withdraw. If the words are not deemed very serious, or explanations are made, then the usual motion is that the member be allowed to proceed in order, in which case it is not customary for the member to retire. Of course he does not participate in the action of the assembly, or in its debate, except to make such explanation as the assembly permits. Of course, also, there may be cases where it is obvious that the member should withdraw, and if he does not retire voluntarily, the assembly can direct him so to do.

224. References to Another Legislative Branch.— It is not permissible to allude to the action of the other house of the legislature, or to refer to a debate there. Such conduct might lead to misunderstanding and ill-will between two bodies which must cooperate in order to properly serve the people. So, also, the action of the other body should not be referred to to influence the body the member is addressing.

225. Duty of the Presiding Officer in Cases Where Debate and Parliamentary Motions Are Employed to Create Disorder and Impede Business.— The presiding officer should pay close attention to the debates, so as to be ready at all times to interpose for the preservation of order. He should himself always be in order and act with the same evenness of temper which he requires from others. The presiding officer has great power over debate and decorum, because he represents the consolidated power of the assembly. It sometimes happens that in the forgetfulness of temper and of party feeling the very processes of the assembly created to transact business are so abused as to be in themselves disorder. In that event the presiding officer should disregard such proceedings, after he has become entirely satisfied of their nature, and put only such motions as will expedite the declaration of the will of the assembly.* Necessarily such a course is to be taken very rarely, and after the offense is clear to all. For such action a presiding officer is responsible to the assembly after the transaction is over. In 1881, before closure was incorporated into the rules, a small number, about thirty-three members, in the House of Commons, an assembly of about 670 members, by alternation of motions to adjourn and motions to adjourn debate, which are both debatable motions under the English practice, kept the House in session day and night for forty-three hours. At the end of that time the Speaker declined to permit any other motions, and, notwithstanding the demands of the thirty-three, declared he would recognize no one for further motion or debate, but would put the questions needful for a decision by the House, which he at once did. Some debate on the subject was had afterward, but nothing was done by the House, the action of the Speaker being universally approved.

*("If Mr. Speaker deems to motion an abuse of the rules of the House he declines to put it." -- Peel's Decisions, 1887-9, page 8.)

226. Punishment.— The punishment which can be inflicted depends upon the character of the assembly, and is in legal assemblies usually limited by law. In voluntary assemblies it may be censure, reprimand, or expulsion, or a demand for apology on pain of expulsion. It almost always happens, when attention is called to the unsuitable nature of the words used by the member, or the acts performed by him, that he makes such an explanation or retraction as enables the assembly to excuse him and go on with its business.

227. Debate in the United States House of Representatives.— In the United States House of Representatives the practice in regard to debate differs somewhat from that of ordinary assemblies. The member proposing a measure, either on his own motion or as the organ of a committee, has charge of the bill or resolution. He is the first recognized to speak on the measure. Next the members of the committee are preferred, on the ground that, having specially examined the subject by order of the House, they are more competent to instruct the House. While a member, as a rule, may not speak twice, the member in charge of a bill is permitted to close as well as to open debate if the bill is a report of a committee. In such case, if the debate has continued more than one day he may have an hour to close, in addition to the hour used in opening, and the ordering of the previous question does not deprive him of the closing hour.

After the motion for a suspension of the rules has been duly seconded, debate may be had for half an hour. So, also, after the previous question has been ordered on a question on which no debate has been had, there may be discussion for half an hour, fifteen minutes being granted to each side. Debate, however, in Committee of the Whole is debate within this rule. In the Fifty-first Congress forty minutes debate was allowed instead of half an hour. This half-hour, under suspension, is equally divided between those opposed and those in favor. The Speaker usually gives control of the fifteen minutes in favor to the mover, and the rest to whoever demands a “second.” In the House on all topics, and in Committee of the Whole in general debate, each member is allowed one hour, and is permitted to parcel out this time among other members. In Committee of the Whole, after general debate has closed, each member is limited to five minutes. This is called debate under the five-minutes rule. Debate on points of order is at the pleasure of the Chair except on appeal.

Whenever the member in charge of the bill has moved the previous question, and the House has refused to agree to the demand, then the control of the measure passes into the hands of those opposed to the previous question, and some one from that side, usually one of the committee, if prominent in opposition, is recognized to have control.

228. Punishment of Disorder and Misbehavior in the House of Representatives.— The only punishment which has been inflicted upon members of the House for disorder and misbehavior, as members, has been censure or expulsion. By the Constitution, a member can not be expelled except by a two-thirds vote. Probably the House has power to inflict other punishments. The United States Supreme Court in Kilbourn vs. Thompson, 13 Otto, 168, says, speaking of the power of punishment, “We see no reason to doubt that this punishment may be, in a proper case, imprisonment, and that it may be for refusal to obey some rule on that subject made by the House for the preservation of order.” If the House of Representatives can imprison, it would seem that it could suspend without imprisonment.