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.

Shhh, It’s a Secret -- What No One Tells You About Executive Session“Executive session” is fancy meeting terminology for a secret proceeding. You probably already knew that much, but conducting a proper closed-door meeting requires knowing a bit more. Here are a few parliamentary pointers that will help you successfully navigate private consideration of delicate issues.

1. Entering executive session requires a motion and a majority vote.

Executive session can’t happen merely on the say-so of one member, or even several. Rather, transitioning a business meeting from open to closed proceedings requires adoption of a motion by majority vote.

As usual, there are a few exceptions—for example, if your group’s governing documents or parliamentary authority (e.g., Robert’s Rules) requires certain topics (think personnel or disciplinary issues) to always be discussed in secret. But, in general, you need the consent of more than half of the members present and voting.

Here are the official parliamentary procedures for entering executive session:

  • A member moves that the group enter executive session for consideration of a certain topic.
  • The motion to enter executive session is seconded, discussed, and then put to a vote.
  • If a majority say “yes,” the group enters executive session.

2. Non-members can attend executive session if invited.

The parliamentary procedure rule for attendance at an executive session is members of the group, plus necessary staff and special guests. For members, attendance is limited to members of the specific group that is meeting. So, for an executive session of a board or committee, only members of that board or committee can attend, not every member of the organization at large. But certain non-members could be invited to attend too. Why? They might need to be present to provide context or perspective. For example, maybe outside legal counsel should attend to explain what exposure the group has as a result of its treasurer’s recent mishandling of funds.

3. Actions taken in executive session don’t always need to stay a secret.

Yes, it’s hush-hush—until the group decides otherwise. Discussion that occurs in executive session should always be secret, but all or some of the actions taken can be publicized afterward if the group chooses. So, even though “executive session” means a secret proceeding, a group may want to share some of its conclusions or proceedings later simply to lessen some of the gossip that often accompanies such meetings.

4. Leaking executive session secrets (even in the minutes) is serious.

Violating the secrecy of an executive session is an offense subject to disciplinary action. So, an organization that learns that a member has divulged matters discussed in executive session has grounds for following membership disciplinary procedures (as outlined in its governing documents and parliamentary authority). Along those lines, minutes of an executive session should be kept private and approved only in an executive session of the same group that had the secret discussion initially (i.e., don’t approve them in the next open membership meeting as you usually would with a prior meeting’s minutes). Of course, because minutes are a record only of actions taken, not discussion that occurred, there may be instances in which executive session minutes merely contain actions that have already been made public. In that case, their approval can occur publicly as well.

By all means, use the concept of executive session when needed.  Just follow proper parliamentary procedure for a smoother ride.

Parliamentary Procedure Quick Guide: How to Make MotionsLet’s start with an “according to Robert’s Rules” definition.

A motion is a proposal that an organization, board, or committee take a specific action (according to Robert’s Rules of Order and other parliamentary procedure authorities). And of course, with any good term, there are subcategories: main motions and secondary motions.

Main motions propose substantive action. For example, a main motion might propose that a group purchase land, organize a fundraiser, or hire more staff. Virtually any proposal related to the objectives of the group qualifies as a main motion.

Secondary motions propose procedural action. They relate to the operation of a group’s meetings. For example, proposals to limit debate, table a main motion, refer a main motion to a committee, or adjourn – all of these are secondary motions under the rules.

Main motions and secondary motions work together – as members propose them – to maintain order and propel a meeting from start to finish.

Next, here’s how to propose a motion.

During a meeting, a motion is made via three simple words: “I move that.” Any member with a proposal for the group to consider – whether substantive or procedural – should simply seek recognition by the chairperson and when recognized, say, “I move that . . . .”

Again, there are subcategories. If the motion is a substantive proposal (a main motion), a member could say, for example, “I move that we organize an event in March to raise awareness and funds for our capital campaign.” There’s one important rule of motion-making, though: A main motion can be made only when no other main motion is being considered by the group. Don’t interrupt the business at hand with other business.

If the motion is a procedural proposal (a secondary motion), a member could say, “I move that we refer the main motion regarding a fundraiser to the Fundraising and Development Committee.” Unlike a main motion, though, a secondary motion can be made even while the group is in the middle of another motion.

Wrapping things up: What happens to the motion?

Once a motion is made, another member must “second” the motion before the group is required to consider it. A second is simply an indication by another member that the motion just made is worthy of the group’s time. (Want to know more about seconds? See 4 Things Most People Get Wrong about Seconds.)

Once another member “seconds” the motion, the chairperson repeats it back to the group, indicating that the idea as proposed is available for consideration by the group. Consideration could include debate, referral of the proposal to a committee, or postponed consideration until a later meeting. Regardless, the group should eventually take some action (even if it’s adjourning the meeting) that will permanently or temporarily dispose of the motion.