[Through Parliamentary Procedure] diverse views in any group may be brought to an issue by orderly discussion and converted into majority action. Such procedure enables free people to take united action and yet retain the greatest individual freedom consistent with the interests of all. It is a precious passkey to peace and good will.
Harold S. Burton, Justice of the Supreme Court
Procedure is more than formality. Procedure is, indeed, the great mainstay of substantive rights... Without procedural safeguards--liberty would rest on precarious ground and substantive rights would be imperiled.
William O. Douglas, Justice of the Supreme Court
The history of liberty has largely been the history of observance of procedural safeguards.
Felix Frankfurter, Justice of the Supreme Court

Americans' willingness to organize to do great things is one of their greatest virtues. The right to peaceably assembly is part of our constitutional rights. Around the world, we are not only known for our optimism, but also our willingness to get our hands dirty and turn that optimism into results. Unions, civic organizations, charities, local government, and corporations are all expressions of people working together to come up with great ideas and put them into practice. Such organizations give the people the opportunity to be involved in grassroots efforts that fill needs that might otherwise be imposed by the government. If there were no American Bar Association or American Dental Association, the state or federal government might have to set in place more bureaucracy to manage professionals. Instead, those most directly interested in an issue or profession can organize to do the job themselves.

Deliberative assemblies don't bury us in a crowd of faceless names. Rather they magnify our opportunity to be effective. By codifying the principles of equality, efficiency, and good faith, assemblies that use parliamentary procedures invite individual members to wield the voice, efforts, and influence of the whole toward ends that benefit everyone. Thus, as Associate Supreme Court Justice Burton states, " Such procedure enables free people to take united action and yet retain the greatest individual freedom consistent with the interests of all (LPP introduction)."

Deliberative assemblies, according to some, are a nuisance. They bog good ideas down by letting them be mangled by many hands. For others, the procedures are an inefficient way to get things done. Both of these are true. These are the same complaint: are the rules worth having? Yes, they are. Freedom is a nuisance. By formalizing the means of using power and using group decisionmaking, deliberative assemblies strike a balance between the health of the assembly and the orderly operation of the group. By not providing encouragement to everyone in the decision-making process, a group would rob itself of a rich source of ideas and wisdom. Furthermore, if a group waits to use the rules until there are problems, it's already too late. By codifying rules of procedure, assemblies put in place systems for decision-making that will avert many troubles, systems that disagreeing parties will trust if troubles do arise.

Furthermore, as stated in Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised , 10th edition (RONR),

Parliamentary procedure enables the overall membership of an organization -- expressing its general will through the assembly of its members--both to establish and empower an effective leadership as it wishes, and at the same time to retain exactly the degree of direct control over its affairs that it chooses to reserve to itself".

As noted, parliamentary procedure and other deliberative systems provide enough leeway for the needs of an organization. If an organization doesn't need members sticking their grubby little hands in everything, then the organization can structure accordingly and still be a democratic assembly. Likewise if great amounts of member input are necessary. This flexibility allows assemblies to streamline their efforts.

Rules of Procedure

Rules of procedure are not the foundation of a successful meeting. They are not even the foundation of a successful organization. Rather, such rules are the mortar that gives us a means to build on each others' ideas and efforts. Our character and motivation form the true basis of what we do. Our means to conduct meetings and perform tasks can only reveal who we already are.

If we are good, then the amount of good we can accomplish is great. A democratic mindset and philosophy of deliberation lay behind a well-organized deliberative assembliy. To truly understand the rules, one must kindle a glimmer of insipiration from the underlying principles. For those whose sole interest is in personal power, the rules of procedure will, when properly administered, give a measure of power while protecting the rights of all members equally.

The rules of procedure come from a variety of historical sources; parliamentary law (an offshot of British common law), political theory, theology, and the American legal tradition have all played a hand in forming our modern concept of parliamentary procedure. Within the American-influenced world, the two most common parliamentary manuals are Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised 10th Edition, and The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure. These manuals, though in some ways binding, are just guidelines. The final authorities on any matter are the customs, documents, and the will of the assembly, so long as the assembly's actions are in accordance with the law.

The parliamentary authorities are both practical and ideal. Though based on hundreds of years of experience, they don't merely codify a pragmatic solution for organizing meetings. The field of parliamentary procedure is diverse; scholars, lawyers, kings, workmen, statesmen, and theologians all have contributed to the tradition. The rules in manuals serve as wise guides precisely because they are founded equally upon pragmatics and principles for decisionmaking and collaboration.

The Basic Tension of Health and Action

Any group that assembles to decide and act can be considered a deliberative assembly. Thus, two things lie at the very nature of such an organization: assembly and action. The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure states it this way:

The purpose of parliamentary procedure is to facilitate the transaction of business and to promte cooperation and harmony...to make it easier for people to work together effectively and to help organizations and members accomplish their purposes.

Thus, the two-pronged purposes of codified parliamentary procedure is to promote both the health of the assembly (by suggesting practices that encourage harmony) and the successful completion of the assembly's common goals. The first it protects by making the means of power equal, clear, and readily available. The second goal is upheld by rules that focus an organization toward tangible, results-oriented decisions.

Some object to the real-world possibility of applying such rules. Parliamentary Procedure and public meetings, they note, have often been used to give some members too much power through their knowledge and others' ignorance. However, contrary to common understanding, it is impossible to validly use parliamentary procedure to gain unequal power within an organization. The Standard Code (STC) elaborates:

Parliamentary procedure should not be used to awe, entangle, or confuse the uninitiated. Technical rules should be used only to the extent necessary to observe the law, to expedite business, to avoid confusion, and to protect the rights of members.

Thus, rigidly demanding that members stick to rules in a bid for power through knowledge of parliamentary procedure is itself against the rules. This is in accordance with the rules' emphasis on the health of the organization. Yet, by abiding by the rules, an assembly ensures that their meetings stay on the task of conducting practical business.

The Basic Principles of Parliamentary Procedure

Parliamentary law provides the procedures that give reality to these democratic concepts.
STC, pg2
A knowledge of the basic principles of parliamentary law enables one to reason out the answers to most parliamentary questions. A thorough understanding of these principles clarifies the entire subject of parliamentary procedure. When one understands the basic principles, it is easy to become familiar with the rules because most of them follow logically from the principles.
STC, pg7

The Purpose of Parliamentary Procedure

Parliamentary procedure should be used to

When an organization of over twelve members runs well without using any sort of procedure, there may already be a problem. Often, too-smooth operations are an indication that someone's voice is being silenced. However, be careful about springing parliamentary procedure upon any group without consent or education. Never begin to use procedure properly for the first time after a problem arises. It can be seen as a method to silence others, which would undermine the health of the assembly.

Meetings and Motions

Meetings are where most things happen within an organization that uses parliamentary procedure. Each organization has its own order of business, but the basic rule is: one thing at a time. Most meetings begin with a call to order. Next, committees report on their progress. Then, the assembly begins consideration of motions. Sometimes, an agenda is distributed before the meeting, ensuring that important motions be dealt with first. Then, the floor is opened, and new motions can be raised. Eventually, the assembly chooses (by setting a time or voting) to adjourn, and the meeting is closed.

A quorum, or minimum number of members necessary to hold a meeting, should be present for meetings to be official. Set the quorum low; high quorums allow a minority to refuse the majority the right to meet.

The Players in Parliamentary Procedure

The members of an assembly all have equal rights. They incorporate the organization. They are the final word in any decision. They define its purposes and carry out its tasks.

The chair is a member who has chosen to relinquish the right to debate so he or she may be a coordinator of discussion and provide a conduit for debate. The chair, who may vote (but ought not to do so often), should be impartial and be perceived as neutral enough to be trusted with the very process of decision-making.

The parliamentarian, contrary to popular belief, is the least powerful person in parliamentary procedure. He/she may not vote or debate, and is forbidden from speaking directly to the assembly unless compelled. Otherwise, the parliamentarian just gives thechair advice on parliamentary issues when questioned, answers which may be disregarded or taken seriously by the chair.

Parliamentary Procedure, which can be found in books like Roberts' Rules of Order Newly Revised 10th Edition and The Standard cCode of Parliamentary Procedure, is not the final word on how to conduct a meeting. The following authorities trump any manual:

Motions are the basic unit of any meeting. When the floor is open for new motions, any member may address the chair, obtain the floor, and propose a new motion. Motions have direction. Each motion should propose some clear action. By requiring motions to be active, parliamentary procedure keeps the assembly to the task at hand -- making tangible decisions. Motions can be stated as follows:

member: "Mr. Chair."

chair: "The chair recognizes the member."

member: "I move that Elizabethtown College's Plant Operations staff place twelve petunias in the hatband of the statue facing Alpha Hall."

chair: "Is there a second?"

member2:"Second!" (another member seconds the motion, showing that the issue is important enough for the assembly to consider)

chair: "It has been moved and seconded that Elizabethtown College's Plant Operations staff place twelve petunias in the hatband of the statue facing Alpha hall. Is there any discussion?"

Once the chair restates the motion for all to hear, it is no longer the property of the motion's maker. The motion's maker has no special claim to the idea. It is now the property of the assembly. It may even modified to deny the fundamental goals of the original motion.

Next, comes debate.

Debate ideas, not personalities. When debating, address the chair using impersonal language. The following poem by Alice Sturgis well-explains the idea:

Denounce the motion, if you will
In voice that quivers, voice that's shrill,

Protest that it is ill-advised
And underdone or oversized.

Deplore, with all your heart and soul,
Its wisdom, wording, good, and goal.

Demand, in mighty burnst of breath,
The motion's sure and sudden death.

But while you rip it, inch and acre,
Don't mention once the motion's maker.

During debate, motions may be changed, postponed, referred to a committee, and brought to a vote. Various types of motions are outlined in the handout. Once a motion is voted on, the entire assembly must abide by the decision of the majority, no matter how they dislike it.

Motions that limit the rights of member, such as a motion to limit debate, s generally require a higher threshold to pass, like a 2/3 vote.

After debate, the assembly brings the motion to a vote. Usually, the standard vote is a voice vote, as in the following:

Chair: Is there any more discussion? (silence)

Chair: All those in favor of the motion that Elizabethtown College's Plant Operations staff place twelve petunias in the hatband of the statue facing Alpha Hall," say "Aye."

Members: Aye!

Chair: All those opposed say, "No."

Members: (weakly) No

Chair: (who heard a louder call for Aye,) The "Ayes" have it, and the motion is carried. The chairman of the decorating committee will instruct Elizabethtown College's Plant Operations staff to place twelve petunias in the hatband of the statue facing Alpha Hall.

Other types of voting, such as hand votes and counted votes also exist when a voice vote seems too close to call.

Role of Members

Know the rules.

Know your organization's founding documents.

Never use dilatory tactics. The health of the body is as important as your pet idea. Perhaps more.

To build support and consensus is always better. Don't be lazy and cruel and selfish by trying to have your own way.

Be an active member. Use your rights.

Further resources