Five of Robert’s Rules that I wish were better known

I confess, I love Robert’s Rules of Order. I love the way they protect the minority while at the same time ensuring the will of the majority is accomplished. I love how they help keep meetings on task, streamlined, and efficient. Unfortunately, because the book is so thick and filled with laborious and minute details, it’s easy to remain in the dark about many of the rules. Who wants to read about parliamentary procedure, after all? And even if one does enjoy the minutia, it’s hard to remember all that one reads.

So, by way of reminder or perhaps for the first time, here are five rules (or parts of rules) that I wish were better known, in order that deliberative bodies like church courts can act wisely, save time, and not run roughshod over its members.

1. “Receiving” a report. Often, the motion is made to “receive” a written (or less frequently an oral) report that was just presented. Yet on page 508 of Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (11th Edition), we read: “A common error is to move that a report ‘be received’ after it has been read – apparently on the supposition that such a motion is necessary in order for the report to be taken under consideration or to be recorded as having been made. In fact, this motion is meaningless, since the report has already been received. Even before a report has been read, a motion to receive it is unnecessary if the time for its reception is established by the order of business, or if no member objects…”

2. “Tabling” a motion. On page 210, Mr. Robert states: “This motion (to Lay on the Table) is commonly misused in ordinary assemblies – in place of the motion to Postpone Indefinitely, to Postpone to a Certain Time, or other motions. Particularly in such misuses, it also is known as a motion ‘to table.'” If you want to put something off till later, the proper motion to make is a motion to postpone to a certain time; it is debatable, whereas the motion to lay something on the table is not. That is because the purpose of the motion to lay on the table is merely to interrupt the pending business so as to permit doing something else (usually something that is urgent) immediately – in making the motion “to table” properly, there is no set time for taking the matter up again, but the majority can consider it again at any time during that session. The way the motion to table is usually used is semantically confusing and therefore substantively wrong.

3. “Friendly” amendments. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen someone try to make a “friendly” amendment, by addressing the maker of the motion to see if he would mind if one or two words or sentences might be changed or added, I’d be a rich man. Yet Robert’s Rules is clear: “The term ‘friendly amendment’ is often used to describe an amendment offered by someone who is in sympathy with the purposes of the main motion, in the belief that the amendment will either improve the statement or effect of the main motion, presumably to the satisfaction of its maker, or will increase the chances of the main motion’s adoption. Regardless of whether or not the maker of the main motion ‘accepts’ the amendment, it must be opened to debate and voted on formally (unless adopted by unanimous consent) and is handled under the same rules as amendments generally” (page 162). “Friendly” amendments are in fact hostile amendments, because they assault the body’s right to debate amendments to motions, and because they forget the fundamental rule that “[a]fter the question has been stated by the chair, the motion becomes the property of the assembly, and then its maker can do neither of these things [modify or withdraw it] without the assembly’s consent” (page 40). The time when “friendly” amendments are indeed friendly is before after the motion has been made and seconded but before the motion has been stated by the chair (see pages 295ff.). Certainly amendments that everyone is recognized to agree would make a motion better can be handled by unanimous consent (“without objection”), as long as the chair/moderator is the one who follows the process for this consent and does not shut down debate. Life in deliberative assemblies would be easier if members just stated their desired amendments to the chair and allowed the chair to follow the rules for amendments.

4. “Reaffirming” a position. It is not unusual (especially at the PCA General Assembly!) to hear a motion made to “reaffirm” a position formerly taken by the body. Yet Mr. Robert is clear: “Motions to ‘reaffirm’ a position previously taken by adopting a motion or resolution are not in order. Such a motion serves no useful purpose because the original motion is still in effect; also, possible attempts to amend a motion to reaffirm would come into conflict with the rules for the motion to Amend Something Previously Adopted; and if such a motion to reaffirm failed, it would create an ambiguous situation.” I.e., if we don’t vote to reaffirm a position, do we still hold it or do we not? So that bodies never find themselves in this situation, moderators must immediately rule motions to reaffirm out of order.

5. “Calling the question.” This motion has several aspects to it that are frequently unknown or disregarded. First, it is not allowed in committees (page 198). Second, it is out of order when someone else has the floor (page 199). Often, you’ll hear folks shout out from the body while someone else is speaking or while they themselves have not yet been acknowledged to speak, “Call the question!” or “Question!” This is absolutely inappropriate. Third, it must be seconded, it is not debatable, and it requires a 2/3 vote. Sometimes moderators hear a motion to call the question, and they immediately move to a vote without having a second, or they allow members to debate whether calling the question is desirable or not. Both are wrong. The 2/3 rule is significant: “In ordinary bodies, the requirement of a two-thirds vote for ordering the Previous Question is important in protecting the democratic process. If this rule were not observed, a temporary majority of only one vote could deny the remaining members all opportunity to discuss any measure that such a majority wished to adopt or kill” (pages 200-201).

These particular rules are perhaps a bit pedantic and nit-picky, yet their observance not only ensures proper procedure, but also that the process of decision making is fair and free. Let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner, Paul said in I Corinthians 14:40. And though he didn’t have Robert’s Rules in mind, I believe he would have been thankful for their development if he lived today.

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