Parliamentary procedure is the set of rules governing meetings and deliberations by Congress, parliaments and most meetings by societies. There are two competing codes: Robert's Rules of Order and Sturgis' Code of Parliamentary Procedure. A third code of procedure is the American Institute of Parliamentarians Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure.
Robert's Rules of Order, known simply as "Robert's Rules," is used by Congress, and is the most complex. Sturgis' Code has the advantage of simplicity. An organization's bylaws, or tradition, defines which set of rules it uses. On basic points, there is little difference between the two sets of rules, but a master of procedure can cite obscure provisions in the appropriate set of rules to help his cause.
The source of Robert's Rules was originally Congress itself. In 1876 General Henry M. Robert first published the rules of Congress for the benefit of membership societies that required deliberative meetings.
All deliberative bodies of people brought together to make decisions must abide by some procedural rules. This includes corporations and organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, fraternities, sororities, Republican and Democratic Clubs, councils, associations, legislatures, commissions, committees of government, and so on. Once the number of members in attendance exceeds a handful, and once there is the potential for disagreement, procedures are needed to keep order and promote efficient and fair resolution of issues.
Parliamentary procedure requires a Chairman to call on people and resolve disputes about procedure. One of the first acts of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was to elect George Washington as its Chairman. The Chairman has significant power under parliamentary procedure. He recognizes speakers and can cut them off. He can declare motions to be "out of order" and thus not suitable for discussion or vote. He decides disputes about procedure. He can ask for advice of legal counsel on a contentious issue if he thinks it will be advantageous to his own views on the issue. Perhaps most important of all, he can end the meeting on his own once it extends beyond its scheduled time, as often happens. This can prevent continuation of debate on a contentious issue. The Chairman also has influence over the scheduling of agenda items before the meeting is adjourned.
Out of courtesy to appear impartial, the Chairman usually does not vote except to break a tie. In small groups or meetings, it is more common for the Chairman to vote.
In order to remain impartial, the Chairman does not usually make motions. However, the Chairman can encourage motions by saying something like "The chairman will entertain a motion to..." 
Each member of a parliamentary session also has significant powers of his own. Each member has the right to speak, vote and bring motions. If the Chairman is a member, he also has these rights.
Motions are the means by which business is conducted under parliamentary procedure. There is no general right to discussion. If there is no pending motion, then the Chairman can suggest adjournment. Discussion takes place only in the context of a pending motion that has been brought by a member of the body.
Motions are the essence of a parliamentary meeting, whether it be Congress, a state legislature, or a local Republican club. A motion is brought as follows:
- a member of the meeting rises and addresses the Chairman.
- the Chairman recognizes the member and allows him to speak.
- the member says, "I move that ...," and includes a brief argument in favor of his motion before or after stating it. The Chairman does not have to recognize a motion is not state properly with the magic words, "I move that ...."
- any member, without waiting for recognition, can declare "I second the motion," or simply "second!"
- only if there is a "second" to the motion will the Chairman recognize, and restate, the motion.
Obviously how the motion is phrased has a big effect on whether it passes. A motion phrased as, "I move that this organization adopt the same national platform adopted by the Republican Party" might a greater chance of success among Republicans than a motion that picks out a controversial provision in that platform. Just as a football team puts much thought into the plays that it will use when it has the ball in a game, much thought beforehand should be given to the content of motions before they are brought. That planning should include anticipation of possible defensive or countermeasures against the motion.
After the motion has been made an seconded, the Chairman must restate it before it can proceed to the next step in dealing with a motion: Discussion or Debate. Once a motion has been made and seconded, the Chairman asks, "is there any discussion?" There almost always is someone who wants to say something about the motion. But if there is no discussion, as in the case of a non-controversial motion, then the Chairman can call for a vote immediately, asking for a show of hands in favor ("Aye") or opposed ("Nay").
The fun begins when there is discussion. Members of the body typically speak in the order in which they lined up to the microphone, or raised their hand. The Chairman can, and often should, place a time limit on comments to prevent some from ranting on and on.
There will be no vote on the motion until someone brings a motion to close debate and that motion is seconded and at least two-thirds of the members vote to close debate (note that a super-majority requirement of two-thirds is needed to close debate). The Chairman then "puts the question to a vote." The members vote on the motion, and in case of a tie, the Chairman may vote also. After the vote, the Chairman announces the results.
What happens between the bringing of a motion and the voting on a motion is the subject of countless parliamentary tricks. Often the winning side is the one that knows its rules of procedure the best.
Tricks for Opposing a Motion
There are many parliamentary tricks for opposing a motion. The first is to get to the microphone (or raise your hand) as soon as possible to speak against it. The early speakers carry more influence than the later speakers, because their words have more impact when the members are interested and paying attention, before growing bored by extended discussion. Raising many questions about the motion and its possible consequences can deter people from voting for it.
A particularly powerful trick to oppose a motion is to stand up during its discussion and move to "table" it for now. If that motion to table is seconded, then it has the effect of ending all discussion on the original motion. A motion to lay on the table is not debatable and requires just a majority vote. A motion to lay on the table cannot be modified by any qualifiers. The proper format is simply saying "I move to lay the question on the table". If the motion to table contains qualifiers, then it is a regular motion and open to debate. A similar type of motion is to move to refer the issue to a committee, or move to postpone the motion to a future meeting. It only takes a majority vote to suspend the motion in this manner.
A point of order can be raised against a motion at any time, even by someone who is not at the microphone, if there is an argument that the motion is improper in any way. For example, perhaps the motion conflicts with the bylaws, or members did not receive proper notice of it a certain number of days before the meeting (if that is required by the bylaws). The Chairman must rule on a "point of order," and there is no vote. If the Chairman is himself against the motion, then he could terminate it right there.
Another way to derail a motion is by amending it, either to remove the objectionable part or to attach a "poison pill" that makes it less attractive. The motion to amend, if seconded, then becomes the topic for discussion until someone calls the question and there is a vote on the amendment. If the amendment passes then it becomes part of the original motion, and if cleverly done this can cause the original motion to fail.
Tricks for Supporting a Motion
If you support a motion, then it's important to second it quickly and enthusiastically, and then speak in favor it as early as possible. If the early speakers are supportive, then call the question promptly and before opposition can mobilize.
You can move to amend a motion that you support, but will add complications and delay the vote on the motion. It is often best to hold a motion to amend until it appears that there is a serious objection to the motion, and then you can help by bringing a motion that addresses the concern. However, if the motion to amend is a friendly one (such as a minor clarification of language), and the personal who brought the original motion approves of it, then the Chair can allow the amendment by general consent and without debate by saying "if there is no objection, the original motion shall be revised to state ...."
It is important to promptly rebut any criticisms of the motion, and to oppose any hostile motions to it.
The delaying tactic of a motion to table can be best addressed by exposing it as a delaying tactic, and how more time is not going to make the issue any easier to resolve. But if it appears that the motion lacks the vote to pass, then it is usually better to avoid a vote to prevent a clear defeat. Once people cast a vote on something it then becomes more difficult to change their mind and switch sides later.
Any member can raise the question of whether there is a quorum (enough members present as specified in the bylaws). But an objection to a quorum has to be raised at the time, or else it is waived. One cannot challenge, after the meeting ended, whether there was a quorum. One trick to oppose a motion is for a large number of members to leave to eliminate the presence of a quorum, but note that the bylaws of many organizations say that once a quorum is established, it remains valid for the duration of the meeting regardless of how many people leave.
The order of the agenda, typically set by a committee with the influence of the Chairman, is very important because it can push key issues to the end, and the Chairman can adjourn before the issue is ever reached. Moving an item to earlier on the agenda to ensure full consideration requires a motion and a 2/3rds vote by the members, which is not easy to attain.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Why use formal procedure?
- A: When a group is larger than just a handful, and when the issues become contentious, rules of procedure make it easier to handle the disputes in an orderly way. Also, procedure and motions are needed to make things binding as a matter of law, as opposed to just discussing issues. Even a board of directors, if larger than a half-dozen, should operate by rules of procedure to ensure clarity in what was formally achieved and is binding on an organization. One of the worst things that can happen to any group is for it to split up over a dispute about what a meeting actually decided.
Q: Which takes precedence, the parliamentary authority or the organization's bylaws?
- A: The organization's bylaws take precedence. Hence it is important to know your group's bylaws. Ask an officer of the group for a copy so you can read them and have them handy.
Q: Can the customs or traditions of an organization's procedures be binding?
- A: Yes. The Chairman can handle procedural disputes by observing how things have always been done by the group.
Q: How does one know later what happened at a meeting?
- A: The Secretary of the organization has the responsibility for transcribing "minutes" of motions introduced, and whether they passed or not. Those minutes are then considered and adopted at the next meeting as the formal record of an organization.
Q: Can the person who brings a motion change his mind and withdraw it?
- A: He can always withdraw it before it is restated by the Chairman, but after it is restated and presented to the assembly it can only be withdrawn based on "general consent" (if no one objects).
Q: What are common mistakes made by the Chairman (to which any member can object)?
- A: Failure to restate motions clearly after they are made and just prior to the formal vote so everyone knows what is being voted on, allowing unnecessary votes when "general (unanimous) consent" would be more efficient, allowing comments or procedures that are out-of-order and should be prevented, and being impartial by disallowing motions he does not like.
Q: What are common mistakes made by members of an assembly (group)?
- A: Failure to obtain recognition before speaking, failure to limit remarks to the pending motion, failure to raise points-of-order (which can be done out of turn) when something improper happens, failure to ask parliamentary questions of the Chair for clarification when confusion reigns, and failure to move to adjourn when appropriate.
Q: What are common mistakes made by the Secretary in writing the minutes of what happened?
- A: Failure to record the when (including beginning and end times), where, what, and who (e.g., identities of key people) of the meeting, failure to record all motions, all votes, and important points of order, failure to sign the minutes when completed, and improper inclusion of comments, withdrawn motions, and other improper detail like the identities of who seconded motions, none of which are appropriate for the formal minutes. Also, minutes must be formally adopted at the next meeting in order to be effective.
Recently, a member of the New Jersey GOP motioned to adopt the platform of the Republican National Convention. New Jersey is one of just a few state committees which haven't adopted the national platform.
But the opposing side deviously prevented this motion from passing, in an example of how parliamentary procedure works to the advantage of the loudest, most assertive member. The opposition first stalled the motion by falsely claiming that the Committee had already adopted the platform. When that was disproved, they claimed that 15 days' notice was necessary before bringing this motion, which was also false. In the end, these deliberately misleading claims prevented the motion from passing. Parliamentary procedure favors those who are assertive.
- Robert's Rules can be read online here: http://www.rulesonline.com/