Four Simple Rules of Parliamentary Procedure


By A. Gregory Wonderwheel, M.A., J.D.

Many people are intimidated by the words "parliamentary procedure" and by Robert's Rules of Order, both by the book's imposing number of pages and its complex cross referenced rules. Human beings are very complex too, but that doesn't prevent them from being our friends. Similarly, parliamentary rules should be the member's friend, and all the complexity of the rules should be made friendly by an understanding of their common sense relationships to each other.

The purpose of parliamentary rules of order are to help people make group decisions after a full, fair, and free discussion. All the rules of parliamentary procedure may be traced to four fundamental principles of common sense, which I liken to the four legs holding up of the parliamentary table. If the member of the board, committee, or assembly holds these four basic rules in mind, all the other rules will fall into place and easily be put into perspective.

1. One Speaker Speaks at a Time

2. One Question Is Decided at a Time.

3. The Speaker Must Be Respectful.

4. Everyone's Rights Are Protected by Balancing Them with Each Other.

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1. One Speaker Speaks at a Time. The rules of order about who may get the floor to speak and when a speaker may be interrupted all derive from the simple rule that if any of the members are to be heard then only one member should speak at a time. If someone is speaking then others should be quiet. If another feels it is important enough to interrupt, hopefully that person will know the rule that allows him or her to interrupt. But if the person feels the need to interrupt is important and doesn't know the rule, then the member may always make a parliamentary inquiry to ask the chair if there is a rule that allows for interruption for that purpose. It is the chair's duty to assist members with understanding the rules and finding the appropriate rule to assist the member's participation.

2. One Question Is Decided at a Time. A question is a motion. People need to know what issue is being discussed and when and how it will be decided. All the rules about considering motions and their rank in order are made to avoid confusion about which question the group is discussing and deciding. The basic rule is that only one question is considered at a time in the order of being raised. If one question is being debated but another question develops that would have an important impact on the first question, then the rules provide a way for the subsidiary question to be decided before the main question. Also when important questions arise that are not about the main question but must be asked and answered before the group can continue, these privileged or incidental questions may be considered while the main or subsidiary question is pending. By making a parliamentary inquiry any member may ask the chair if their question has any precedence over the immediately pending question. When one question has precedence all other pending questions are stacked to be decided in order.

3. The Speaker Must Be Respectful. The rules of order are fundamentally about respecting each member of a group so that the group can get decisions made in as quick and as fair a manner as possible, considering the size of the group and the urgency of the question. Decorum is a significant factor in helping questions be decided expeditiously, ethically, and impartially. The rules of decorum embody the principle that each member of a group has an equal right to attempt to persuade the other members that his or her view of a question is correct or best for the group. A member's attempt to persuade the group is debate. Fair debate requires each member so show respect for the other members. Disrespectful debate takes unfair advantage of the right to persuade. Name calling, personalizing, shouting down, or other types of disrespect are not appropriate means of persuasion. The chair has the duty to call to order any member who is disrespectful. Also any member may raise a point of order to call to order another member who breaches decorum. The chair should direct the offending member to proper conduct. If a member continues to be disorderly after correction, the chair or any member may ask the group to discipline the member, including asking for an apology or ejecting the member for the remainder of the meeting. Since the conduct occurred in the meeting there is no need for a formal disciplinary trial. But if a member continues to act disrespectfully and that conduct reflects badly on the group or interferes with the group's ability to conduct business, then the ultimate discipline of being expelled from membership in the organization may be decided after a trial according to the bylaws or the rules of parliamentary procedure adopted by the organization.

4. Everyone's Rights Are Protected by Balancing Them with Each Other. The whole design of the rules of parliamentary procedure is created to balance the rights of the members. The interests balanced by the rules are those 1) of the majority, 2) of the minority, 3) of the individual member, 4) of the absentee members, and 5) of all together. For example, the simple majority vote for most main questions protects the majority's right to get business done. A two-thirds majority vote protects the rights of a minority larger than one-third when certain significant questions are considered. The rules requiring or not requiring a second protect the rights of the individual or the minority to consider or prevent consideration of certain questions. The rules of quorum and notice protect the absentee members. By having the common sense understanding of whose rights are being protected by any particular rule, both the member and the group will appreciate the rule and how the rule operates within the greater scheme of applying the rules to particular circumstances. Knowing that the rules are balanced to protect everyone's rights, not just the majority or just a minority, helps members appreciate why the rules are elaborate.

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All the rules of parliamentary procedure relate directly to one or more of these four simple rules. If these four primary rules are held in mind when conducting meetings, the members should be able to have their say while the questions needing to be decided are decided in the most fair and efficient manner possible. Even if a member isn't familiar with all the rules of procedure, these four rules will provide enough of a basis to know by common sense whether the rules of parliamentary procedure generally are being followed or not. If a member thinks that one of these four rules is being violated, or not appropriately applied, that is a warning sign. It is always in order for the member to ask the chair if the member is correct. Then the chair should assist the member in clarifying the point or question and, if necessary, assist the member in formulating the proper particular motion to make the point or question appropriate to consider.

Contact: Gregory Wonderwheel,

50 Santa Rosa Avenue, Suite 303

Santa Rosa, California 95404

Tel: (707) 578-2181 Fax: (707) 578-2184


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