What Are the Basic Principles of Parliamentary Procedure?
Parliamentary procedure is reasonably logical and simple when you understand the concepts or purposes behind it. Think of it in terms of principles that impose order, openness and fairness rather than rigid, detailed technical rules. Ten basic principles that govern procedure in decision making appear below.
- The legislative body must have organized, acquiring the power and authority to make decisions.
- There must be a meeting of the legislative body at which the decision is made.
- Meetings must be properly noticed.
- There must be a quorum present at the meeting.
- There must be a clear proposal before the body for decision.
- There must be an opportunity to debate.
- There must be a vote.
- There must be an affirmative vote.
- Decisions must not violate constitutional limitations or judicial decisions interpreting the constitution.
- There must be a record of the meeting.
What Is a Bill?
A bill is a formal draft of a proposed law presented to the legislature for consideration. A bill may present an entirely new statute, or it may propose changes to existing statutory language. The statutory language proposed in a bill is subject to revision during its consideration; the formal mechanism to suggest a change to bill language is a motion to amend (discussed in more detail in “Ten Frequently Used Motions”).
See also “What is a resolution?”
What Is a Committee?
The work of state legislatures is voluminous and complex, so legislatures use committees to divide the workload. Committees are the principal vehicles through which legislation must pass for scrutiny, debate and modification. They also serve as the major access point for citizens and interest groups, by providing a formal opportunity for input into the legislative process. It is only during committee hearings that non-legislators have an opportunity to speak about proposed legislation.
It is important to remember that the sole power of a committee is to make recommendations to the body. All committee actions are subject to review by the body and may be approved, rejected or modified. No committee recommendation becomes effective until approved by the body.
Several kinds of legislative committees exist. For example, standing committees, appointed for the term of the body, typically are the main policy committees for a chamber. Conference committees have members from both chambers, and they represent the formal continuation of discussions to resolve policy disagreements between the two chambers on a bill. Special committees (also known as ad hoc, investigating, select or study committees) may be created to address a particular matter or to perform a particular function.
What Is Debate?
Debate is one of the most fundamental characteristics of a legislature. It is required to ascertain the collective judgment of a body about a pending question or policy proposal.
Strictly speaking, “debate” means remarks made on opposite sides of a question. In a more general sense, it includes all discussion on a substantive question before the body, even if all remarks are on one side. Debate may commence only when a motion is properly before the body. Informal discussion, without a motion, is not debate.
There may be times when debate is not allowed. For example, certain motions are not open to discussion, i.e. they are non-debatable.
What Is Decorum?
According to a glossary of legislative terms by the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries, “decorum” is defined as “proper order, etiquette and conduct of members.” Why is decorum important? Proper decorum creates an atmosphere that is appropriately formal. It encourages order, which, in turn, encourages preparation for and participation in debate. Decorum also places focus upon the issues discussed, not upon the person speaking.
Legislatures often encourage and preserve decorum by:
Requiring the use of appropriate language and parliamentary terminology.
- Creating and enforcing a dress code.
- Restricting food and beverages on the floor.
- Controlling the use of cell phones, pagers and other electronic devices on the floor.
- Establishing other rules and customs of behavior.
What Is Germaneness?
Germaneness means the relevance or appropriateness of amendments or motions to the item under discussion.
How does one decide what is germane? No perfect test is available for determining when a proposed amendment or motion is germane. A sample checklist to test germaneness may include the following.
- Does the amendment deal with a different topic or subject?
- Does the amendment unreasonably or unduly expand the subject of the bill?
- Would the amendment introduce an independent question?
- Is the amendment relevant, appropriate, and in a natural and logical sequence to the subject matter of the original proposal?
- Would the amendment change the purpose, scope or object of the original bill?
- Would the amendment change one type of motion into another type?
- Would the amendment change a private (or local) bill into a general bill?
- Would the amendment require a change in the bill title?
What Is the Journal?
“Journal” is defined as an official chronological record of the action taken and proceedings of a legislative body. It usually is not a verbatim record; instead, most legislative assemblies produce “summary” journals—that is, a record that summarizes the major actions taken by a body, but that does not include every word spoken.
For almost all legislative chambers, the journal is their official record. The four main reasons to create this record are:
- To refresh the memories of the members who attended the last meeting.
- To inform those who were absent.
- To compile a history of the chamber’s actions and accomplishments.
- To provide the courts with a record of a legislature’s adherence to constitutional requirements when passing bills.
What Is a Motion?
A motion is a proposition or request that the body take some action upon a matter. It is the basis for business. The six essential steps to decide a matter by motion and vote are:
- A member requests recognition from the chair.
- The chair recognizes the member.
- The member makes the motion by stating “I move …”
- The chair restates the motion to the body.
- There is opportunity for debate (if the motion is debatable).
- The chair asks if the body is ready for the question, puts the motion to a vote and declares the vote result.
The four facts you should know in order to effectively use a motion are:
- What is the priority of the motion in relation to the pending business?
- Can the motion interrupt someone who is speaking?
- Can the motion be debated?
- Can the motion be amended?
Motions have a priority (or precedence) in order to secure a fair, yet prompt, transaction of business. The relative order evolved from their use by deliberative assemblies. Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure, Section 187, sets forth the priority of approximately 40 common motions and questions.
See also “Ten Frequently Used Motions.”
What Is the Order of Business?
The order of business is the defined sequence of business to be considered for each day that a legislative body meets. Each chamber decides what comprises its order of business. Floor proceedings of deliberative bodies generally can be divided into three parts:
- The opening—which commonly includes the call to order, quorum roll call, invocation and pledge of allegiance.
- The business—which often consists of reading and approval of the journal, presentation of petitions and papers, messages from the governor or other house, reports of standing or special committees, special orders, unfinished business, introduction and first reading of bills, and consideration of daily calendar.
- The closing—which usually includes announcements and adjournment.
What Is a Parliamentary Inquiry?
A parliamentary inquiry is a request from a legislator to the presiding officer for information concerning the pending business, the body’s rules and how they apply to the matter before the body, or to something a member may want to do.
The steps typically used to present a parliamentary inquiry are:
- A member stands and says to the presiding officer “Parliamentary inquiry, please.”
- The presiding officer asks the member to state the inquiry.
- The member presents the request for information. For example, the member asks, “On which order of business are we?”
- The presiding officer should answer inquiries pertinent to the business before the body, so the member requesting information can understand what is happening, make a proper motion or raise a timely point of order. It is not the presiding officer’s duty to answer general questions about parliamentary law.
What Is a Point of Order?
It is the duty of a presiding officer to maintain order and enforce the rules of the body. It also is the right of every member who observes a breach of order or a violation of a rule to insist upon enforcement.
A point of order is the parliamentary device used to require a deliberative body to observe its own rules and to follow established parliamentary procedure. The time to raise a point of order is critical. A point of order must be raised before the irregularity has passed or while the particular question is pending. It is too late to raise a point of order when the next item of business is taken up or when the measure has left the control of the body.
Once a point of order is raised, the procedures that follow are:
- A ruling.
- Sometimes, an appeal.
What Is a Ruling?
A "ruling" or “ruling of the chair” is a decision of the presiding officer concerning a point of order or a question about procedure.
What Is an Appeal?
It is the responsibility of the presiding officer to rule fairly and impartially on points of order. There may be occasions, however, when you do not agree with a ruling. An appeal is the proper method of taking exception to a ruling by a presiding officer. An appeal must be made promptly; it is too late to appeal once debate or other business occurs.
The essential steps to present and decide an appeal are:
- A member rises and addresses the presiding officer.
- Without waiting for recognition, the member makes the appeal by stating, “I appeal from the decision” or “I appeal from the decision of the [president, speaker, chair].”
- The chair restates the decision appealed from and may give reasons for the decision.
- There is opportunity for debate.
- The chair asks the body, “Shall the decision of the [president, speaker or presiding officer] be sustained?” or “Shall the decision of the [president, speaker or presiding officer] stand as the judgment of the [Senate, House or Assembly].”
- The question is put to a vote. Both affirmative and tie votes uphold the presiding officer’s ruling. A negative vote overturns the ruling.
Please be aware of your chamber’s tradition concerning appeals. In some bodies, an appeal is considered the equivalent of a vote of no confidence in (or a vote to remove) the chair.
What Is a Question?
The definition of “question” varies, depending upon the parliamentary context in which the term is used. For example:
- It may mean a simple query to gain information—such as when one member is speaking and another member rises and asks the presiding officer if the member speaking will answer a question.
- It may refer to the proposal or motion that is before the body for discussion and vote—such as when the presiding officer states, “The question is before the body. Is there any debate?” or “The question is before the body. All those in favor say ‘yea’…”
What Is a Quorum?
A quorum is the number of members whose presence is necessary to transact business and to make actions taken legally valid. If the number is not specified, a quorum usually is a majority of the membership. In determining a quorum, those who are not qualified members of the body at that time are not counted.
Any member may raise the doubt that a quorum is present. This should not be done capriciously or obstructively. It should be fairly apparent that a quorum is not present.
If it is determined that a quorum is not present, all business stops; no principal or essential business can be transacted. Certain procedural actions then legally may occur. These are:
- Set an adjourned (continued) meeting.
- Take measures to procure a quorum.
What Is a Reading?
A reading is a formal procedure that presents a measure before a chamber and indicates a stage in its consideration. State constitutions usually require a certain number of readings—three is most common.
Readings are an invention of an early period of parliamentary history. Originally, they provided a way to inform illiterate legislators and the public about the provisions of a bill—that is, the bill was read aloud from beginning to end. The common use of printed bills is a relatively new development. Today, bills rarely are read at length.
Typically, the first reading is for introduction and information—to place the house on notice about a bill and the specific nature of its provisions. On second reading, the matter and form of the bill are debated and, if necessary, refined. On third reading, the house judges whether the bill is in the form agreed upon, if it truly expresses "the deliberate sense or will of the house," and if it is ready for the body’s vote on passage to be taken.
What Is a Resolution?
A resolution expresses the sentiment, intent or recognition of the legislature (or one chamber thereof). It also may establish procedures governing the business of the legislature (or a chamber). The various types of resolutions include simple, concurrent and joint. The language proposed in a resolution is subject to change; the formal mechanism to suggest a change to resolution language is a motion to amend (discussed in more detail in “Ten Frequently Used Motions”).
See also “What is a bill?”
What Is a Veto?
A "veto" is 1) the power vested in a governor to disapprove measures passed by a legislature, or 2) the message that usually is sent to the legislative assembly by the governor, stating the refusal to sign a bill into law and the reasons for the refusal.
The various types of veto power include:
- Regular—the ability of the governor to disapprove an entire bill passed by the legislature.
- Item or line item—the ability of the governor to disapprove distinct lines or items within a bill, while approving the remainder.
- Amendatory—the ability of the governor to return a bill with recommendations for amendment(s).
- Reduction—the ability of the governor to reduce the amount of a particular line item.
The veto process is time-sensitive. For example, a legislature may face a specified time within which measures must be delivered to the governor. Once a bill is delivered to the governor, the number of days for gubernatorial action on a measure usually is limited.
When the governor returns a vetoed bill, the legislature has two options: 1) to let the veto stand and allow the measure to die, or 2) to attempt to override the veto. The votes necessary to override a veto vary from state to state and sometimes for different types of bills. It is important to know what is required for your legislature.
What Is a Vote?
A “vote” is the formal expression of the will of or decision by the body. When a vote is taken, generally one side wins and one side loses. The winning side—whether that side voted in the affirmative or negative—is called the prevailing side. What happens if there is no winning side because the vote is tied? For most legislative chambers, when a tie vote occurs, the negative is the prevailing side because the question failed to achieve a majority.
A vote may be taken in various ways. For example:
- Voice vote—a vote whereby members orally express their approval or disapproval by stating en masse “aye” or “nay” following the request of the presiding officer; the presiding officer decides which side prevails.
- Division—a vote by a show of hands or by standing.
- Recorded or roll call vote—the individual vote of each member is taken and published in the journal.
In many parliamentary situations, the chair has discretion in deciding which method of voting is used. Under certain circumstances, no option for the method of casting votes is allowed, and a roll call vote is required. For example, by constitutional mandate, most legislatures are required to take roll call votes for final passage of bills.
What is a majority? A voting question that often arises is, “What is a majority?” Very simply, “majority” means “a number greater than one-half of the total.” The issue becomes more complex, however, when the next question is asked, “Greater than one-half of the total of what?” It is important to define “of what” a majority is to be determined. For example, it may be a majority of a quorum, a majority of those present and voting, or a majority of the membership.
Most state constitutions establish the vote requirement for final passage of a bill by the legislature. As a result, you may hear someone say, “It takes a constitutional majority.” This usually means a “majority of each house” or “majority of all members elected to each house.” Please note that, if a state constitution uses the phrase, “majority of all members elected to each house,” a vacancy in a chamber may affect that chamber’s vote requirement.
If the state constitution and legislative rules do not specify the basis for determining a majority vote, you may hear “It takes a simple majority.” This typically means a majority of those present and voting.
You also may hear someone say, “That requires a supermajority vote.” What is a supermajority vote? A “supermajority vote” is any vote requiring more than a majority for passage. For example, a two-thirds vote frequently is necessary to suspend the rules, override a veto, expel a member or pass a proposed constitutional amendment. Other common supermajority requirements are three-fifths and three-fourths.