5 Essential Facts about Closing DebateIf there’s one reason people hate meetings, it’s because they drag on forever with needless discussion. According to Robert’s Rules, closing debate and moving directly to a vote on a motion – via a specific motion called “Previous Question” – is one (sometimes popular) way to speed things along. But ending debate on a motion only works when it’s done properly (i.e., when parliamentary procedure is followed). Here are five essential facts to know before you try to end debate and shorten up those meetings:

1. “Previous Question” Means to Close Debate and Vote Immediately

When someone says, “I move the previous question” or “I call the question” or just says “question,” they are asking to close debate and vote immediately on the motion that’s on the floor.

British parliament has sketchy historical records about the original use of this term sometime in the 1600s. It’s not tremendously clear why and how the original phrase was coined, but it allegedly arose during a lengthy and disputed parliamentary discussion and then has continued to be used to the present day (though rarely) to communicate, “We need to wrap things up here and vote already.”

History aside — because the meaning of the term “previous question” is no longer readily apparent — I recommend simply saying “close debate” instead. In my view, most meetings have enough confusion on their own. No need to add more by using terms that most of the group does not understand.

2. The Person Who Moves the “Previous Question” Must Be Recognized First

Meeting participants often want to interrupt a speaker to make the motion to close debate. For example, they want to find an unused microphone and say, “I call the previous question.” Or they want to yell “question” from the back of the room.

But the motion to close debate does not have interrupting privileges. If a member wants to move to close debate, she must get in line and seek recognition like any other member waiting to discuss the motion. Importantly, though, a member can seek recognition to offer comments on the motion and at the end of the comments move to close debate.

3. “Previous Question” Is Not Debatable

This point needs little explanation. Quite simply, there’s no need to debate whether to close debate. The point of “Previous Question” is to move the meeting along. Why defeat that purpose with even more discussion?

4. “Previous Question” Requires a Two-Thirds Majority for Adoption

Because the right to discussion is a fundamental right of every member, the motion to close debate requires a two-thirds majority vote. This fact is a basic rule dictated by Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised.

5. A Vote on “Previous Question” Is Not a Vote on the Main Motion

A member that moves to close debate and vote immediately on the main motion is moving to stop discussion. As I just noted, that action needs a two-thirds majority to be adopted. If the motion to close debate receives a two-thirds majority, the group should immediately turn to a vote on the main motion. There’s no more discussion because this vote just closed debate. But you still need a separate vote on the main motion.

I find that members often get confused here because they think that voting on the motion to close debate somehow also takes care of the main motion. It doesn’t. You need a vote first on ending debate (two-thirds majority) and then a vote on the main motion itself (likely only a simple majority).

In sum, next time you sense that a discussion has dragged on for a little too long, feel free to move to close debate. Just remember the essentials!

Quick Guide: The Lifecycle of a MotionRemember that previous post on the parliamentary procedure basics for how to make a motion? Here’s “Making Motions – Round 2,” a more detailed guide on the specific language* you should use both for making a motion and, if you’re the presiding officer, for carrying it through to a vote.

Step 1:       Member A Seeks Recognition

Say this →   Mr./Madame President?

Step 2:      The Presiding Officer Recognizes Member A

Say this →   The Chair recognizes Member A.

Step 3:      Member A Makes a Motion

Say this →   I move that we organize an event in March to raise awareness and funds for our capital campaign.

Step 4:      Member B Seconds the Motion

Say this →   Second.

Important Note: The second happens in an impromptu manner. The chair doesn’t have to invite it by asking, “Is there a second?” Nor does the member who makes the second have to seek recognition beforehand.

Step 5:      The Presiding Officer Repeats the Motion

Say this →   It has been moved and seconded that we organize an event in March to raise awareness and funds for our capital campaign.

Step 6:      The Presiding Officer Asks for Discussion**

Say this →   Is there any discussion?

Step 7:      Members Discuss the Motion OR Make Another Motion

Just follow the procedure above. Seek recognition, and once recognized, make comments on the pending motion or make another motion.

Step 8:      The Presiding Officer Takes a Vote

Say this →   If there is no further discussion, we will take a vote. All those in favor of the motion that we organize an event in March to raise awareness and funds for our capital campaign say, “aye.” All those opposed say, “no.” The “ayes” have it and the motion is adopted. We will organize an event in March to raise awareness and funds for our capital campaign.

And there you have it – a simple process with uncomplicated and logical wording. Note the presiding officer’s helpful repetition of the exact words of the motion, preventing confusion and keeping attention focused! Like most parliamentary procedure rules, these steps for proposing action items provide order and efficiency.

*Parliamentary authorities (Robert’s Rules and other guides) differ on the exact words that members and presiding officers should use. Some parliamentarians are “sticklers” about specific language. For the most part, these differences have no practical effect. The steps for processing a motion remain the same. In my view, variations on these words are fine, as long as what is said clearly conveys the correct information.

**This step occurs only if the rules allow discussion on the motion. For example, discussion is not allowed on motions to limit or close debate.