The NCSL Blog


By Brenda Erickson

Legislatures may turn to several sources when making parliamentary interpretations—for example, their state constitutions, chamber rules and statutes. These documents do not always cover every parliamentary nuance that a chamber may face, however.

So, a chamber may opt to designate an official “backup” parliamentary manual. Sometimes, a chamber adopts more than one authority as “backups.”

And because there is no requirement to do so, a chamber may choose not to specify a supplemental parliamentary authority in its rules.

A “backup” parliamentary manual helps cover issues not addressed by a chamber’s own rules and serves as an additional guide for decision making. Examples of parliamentary manuals used as “backup” authorities include:

  • Cannon’s Precedents
  • Cushing’s Manual
  • Hinds’ Precedents
  • Hughes' American Parliamentary Guide
  • Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure
  • Jefferson's Manual
  • Reed’s Parliamentary Rules
  • Robert's Rules of Order
  • U.S. House Rules
  • U.S. Senate Rules 

Why might a chamber select a particular manual for its “backup”? Thanks for asking! There can be several reasons.

Content may be one reason. Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure is written specifically for state legislatures. It is designed to deal with issues and problems that arise within the state legislative environment. For example, it contains information on how to deal with another legislative chamber and the other branches of government. It includes citations to other parliamentary manuals and court decisions, thereby giving additional authority to the decisions it backs.

Familiarity may lead to a manual’s selection. Robert’s Rules of Order is designed for civic groups and private organizations. Legislators often are (or have been) active in these types of groups and thus already may be familiar with Robert’s content and how to use it.

Ties to a manual’s author may influence chamber decisions.

  • Paul Mason wrote the first seven editions of Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure. Mason worked for the California Senate. During his tenure with the Senate, he served as an assistant minute and file clerk, assistant legislative counsel, chief assistant Senate secretary and parliamentarian. He also held other positions in California government. Needless to say, Mason’s Manual serves as the “backup” manual for the California Senate and Assembly.
  • Thomas Brackett Reed, author of Reed’s Parliamentary Rules, hailed from Maine. He served in both chambers of the Maine Legislature, as the state attorney general and in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he became House speaker. It’s probably not surprising that the Maine House has selected Reed’s Rules as one of its parliamentary authorities.
  • Edward Wakefield Hughes, who wrote Hughes' American Parliamentary Guide, was parliamentarian of the Ohio General Assembly and was officially designated as state parliamentarian. And guess what? The Ohio House uses Hughes as one of its parliamentary authorities.
  • Thomas Jefferson, the author of Jefferson’s Manual, has very strong ties to the state of Virginia. He was born and raised there, served as a delegate to the Virginia House of Burgesses, was governor and represented Virginia in the Continental Congress. Jefferson became the second U.S. vice president and third U.S. president. Again, it probably comes as no surprise that this manual serves as the supplemental authority for the Virginia Senate and House. 

Chamber rules help legislators make decisions in an orderly manner. To the extent to which the designation of a “backup” manual assists with this endeavor, that’s beneficial to the legislative institution.

Brenda Erickson is a program principal in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program and the NCSL liaison to the Mason’s Manual Commission.  

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.