On calling the question
One of the most common abuses of the spirit of Robert’s Rules of Order is the habitual use of “calling the question” to end debate prematurely. There are certainly times when talk has gone on long enough. People start repeating previous points and the Chair seems to have been lulled into a semi-conscious state. Other pressing matters call for attention. A growing sense arises that it is time to vote, so a member stands and says, “Madam President, I move the previous question” or “I call the question.” Another member seconds the motion and the Chair asks for the vote on closing debate. Two thirds must agree. If the motion to call the question passes, the Chair immediately puts the question on the motion before the house.
But far too often, assemblies have inherited the bad and unfair habit of cutting off debate while the minority has not had adequate time to express itself. And presiding officers have gotten lazy about letting people call out “question” from their seats.
The right of the minority to an adequate hearing deserves better. Here are some moves to consider. You may use all of them at different times. Your assembly can be trained, even if you have to whack them on the snout with a newspaper a few times. Don’t be afraid to do it. Practice on some of the most egregious offenders first.
TACTICS (Have your real Robert’s Rules highlighted and flagged):
-Crush the practice of people calling out “question” from their seats. If the Chair lets people get away with this, rise and say, “Point of order.” This really is about order. The Chair will ask your point. Say, “Robert’s Rules requires that a person stand and be recognized before making a motion (RONR, 10th, P.199, L.17. This is the case for every motion).
-If someone “calls the question” early and you judge that fair opportunity for debate is being threatened, consider standing and saying, “Point of order.” When asked your point of order, say something like, “Mr. President, It is foundational to parliamentary law that the minority be given adequate opportunity to debate an issue. I believe this motion cuts off debate prematurely and I ask you to rule it out of order.” Documentation: the Introduction to Robert’s Rules (RONR, 10th, P. XLIV).
Even if the Chair rules against you, there is a chance that gracious members in the assembly, hearing your rationale, will not vote for the motion to cut off fair debate.
-If the motion to “call the question” goes forward, Robert’s is clear that the vote must be a “rising” vote. People are required to stand up and identify themselves to deny the minority their rights to debate. If the Chair puts a voice vote and you haven’t used up all your good will or if the issue is crucial, stand and raise a “point of order” about the voting method. (RONR, 10th, P.199ff in the examples).
If 2/3rds of the assembly votes to cut off debate, that is their right. But if this has happened prematurely and if the issue is crucial, your final recourse is to “a point of personal privilege” affecting your place in the assembly. See the post on this subject and the link there to the post on the motion to “table” for this strategic use of “point of privilege.”
If your assembly is gracious and fair, there is a good chance you can train them about the right to adequate debate.
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