Every member has the right to debate or to discuss business that is introduced to the assembly in the form of a main motion. Only a motion to limit debate or to close debate (which is accomplished through a motion called previous question) can take away or limit this right, and either motion must have a two-thirds vote. (See Chapter 7, "Limit or Extend the Limits of Debate" and "Previous Question.")
The assembly can make an informed decision from the facts and persuasive arguments that members present only through discussion. Members should never be tempted to gavel through an issue (rush through a motion without any discussion) in an effort to save time or silence the opposition.
In his book Parliamentary Law, Henry Robert gives a word to the wise when he states,
Where there is radical difference of opinion in an organization, one side must yield. The great lesson for democracies to learn is for the majority to give the minority a full, free opportunity to present their side of the case, and then for the minority, having failed to win a majority to their views, gracefully to submit and to recognize the action as that of the entire organization, and cheerfully to assist in carrying it out, until they can secure its repeal.
This chapter explains the rules of debate and the circumstances under which debate can be limited. It also lists those motions that are debatable and those that are not.
A member must obtain the floor and be recognized by the presiding officer before beginning to speak. A member can't begin talking while seated. However, in small board meetings where rules of debate are less formal, talking while seated is allowed. (See Chapter 11, "Board Meetings.")
The member who made the motion has the first right to speak to the motion. He or she does so by rising and obtaining the floor after the chair places the motion before the assembly for discussion.
A member can speak twice to the motion on the same day, but he or she can take the second turn only after everyone who wishes to speak the first time has spoken. If debate on the motion is continued at the next meeting, which is held on another day, the member's right to debate is renewed.
Each member can speak for ten minutes on each turn unless the assembly has adopted rules that state another amount of time.
Debate must be germane (relevant) to the motion.
Speakers must address all remarks to the chair; cross talk between members is not allowed.
Speakers must be courteous and never attack other members or question the motives of the members. In controversial issues, the discussion is focused on ideas, not on personalities. Members must not use inflammatory statements such as "it's a lie," "it is a fraud," or "he's a liar." However, a member may say,
Member: I believe there is strong evidence that the member is mistaken.
Profane language is also prohibited.
In debate, speakers refer to officers by title and avoid mentioning other members' names. Instead, they should refer to the members by identifiers such as "the member who just spoke" or "the delegate from Hawaii."
When speaking to a motion, it is important for the member to first let the assembly know which side of the issue he or she is on. If in favor of the motion, the member states
Member: I speak for the motion.
and gives the reasons why. If opposed, the member states
Member: I speak against the motion.
and gives the reasons why. Doing so helps the chair alternate the debate.
In controversial issues, the presiding officer should alternate the debate between those speaking for and those speaking against the motion. After someone speaks for the motion, the chair asks:
President: Would anyone like to speak against the motion?
After someone speaks against the motion, the chair asks:
President: Would someone like to speak in favor of the motion?
This practice ensures that all sides are represented, keeps tempers down, and prevents one side from dominating the discussion.
The member who makes the motion can't speak against his or her own motion, although he or she can vote against it. The person who seconds the motion, however, can speak against the motion because a second means "Let's discuss it," not "I agree." Sometimes a member seconds a motion so he or she can speak against it.
A member can't read (or have the secretary read) from part of a manuscript or book as part of his or her debate without the permission of the assembly. However, the member can read short, relevant printed extracts in debate to make a point.
During debate, a member can't talk against a previous action that is not pending, unless one of the motions to rescind, reconsider, or amend something previously adopted is pending; or unless the member concludes his or her remarks with one of these motions.
During debate, members should take care not to disturb the assembly by whispering, talking, walking across the floor, or causing other distractions.
During debate, the presiding officer sits down when a member is assigned the floor to speak. Or if, when seated, members can't see the presiding officer, the officer stands back from the lectern while the member is speaking. (Like the rule of one item of business at a time, this rule allows only one person at a time to have the floor.)
If at any time during debate the presiding officer needs to interrupt the speaker for a ruling (for example, if the chair is correcting something that the speaker is doing) or needs to give information (facts related to the discussion, for example), the member should sit down until the presiding officer finishes. The member can then resume speaking.
In deliberative assemblies (bodies that meet to consider proposals made to them), members do not have the right to give some of their time to another member. If a member has not used his or her ten minutes, the member forfeits the unused portion.
As the chairman, the presiding officer must remain impartial. As a member, the presiding officer has a right to debate. Thus, if the presiding officer wishes to speak to an issue, he or she relinquishes the chair to another officer (the vice president, for example) who has not spoken and does not wish to speak. If no officer wishes to take the chair, a member who has not spoken and has received the assembly's approval can preside. The presiding officer resumes the chair when the motion has been either voted on by the assembly or temporarily put aside by a motion to refer to a committee, postpone to another time, or lay on the table.
In debating an issue, members also have the right to conclude their debate with a higher-ranking motion than the one pending. (See Chapter 6 for a chart on ranking motions.) This action upholds the parliamentary principle that when the chair recognizes a member for any legitimate purpose, the member has the floor for all legitimate purposes.
Members can put limits on debate and even stop the debate altogether. To do so, members must make a motion. The presiding officer cannot cut off the debate as long as one member wishes to rise and speak. Neither can one member stop the debate by yelling out "Question" or "It's time to take a vote."
Only the motion to limit debate can limit debate; and debate can be closed only by the motion previous question or close debate. These motions need a second, are not debatable, and require a two-thirds vote to adopt. A rising (but not counted) vote is required. (For more details about these motions, see Chapter 7.)
Not all motions are debatable. Some motions are debatable in some situations and not in others. It is important to study the chapters on motions (Chapters 6 through 10) to understand what each motion is and the reasons why some motions are debatable and some aren't. The following is a list of debatable and nondebatable motions.
Refer to a committee
Postpone to a certain time
Appeal from the decision of the chair
Amend something previously adopted
Reconsider Recess (as an incidental main motion)
Fix the time to which to adjourn (as an incidental main motion)
Limit or extend the limits of debate
Previous question (close debate)
Lay on the table
Take from the table
Call for the orders of the day
Raise a question of privilege
Recess (as a privileged motion)
Fix the time to which to adjourn (as a privileged motion)
Point of order
Withdraw a motion
Suspend the rules
Object to consideration of the motion
Division of the assembly
Division of the question
Incidental motions relating to voting, when the subject is pending
Dispense with the reading of the minutes