Society Chapter 51
American Institute of
Presentation December 7, 2004
Until 1882 there was only one
direct approach to closing debate in the English Parliament which was through
the use of a device called the previous question. The first instance of the use
of the previous question was May 25, 1604 (over 400 years ago). It was not used
as it is today. The traditional usage was “that the question be not now put”.
If it is carried, it is the same as adjourning the House, if however it is
lost, it has a further effect i.e. the question must be put at once, and no
further debate or motion for amendment is permissible. The current House of
Commons of England now uses motions of cloture or motions to close debate.
General Henry Martyn Roberts also
uses the term previous question for closure of debate. His use should be placed
in context. The first edition of his Rules of Order was published in
February 19, 1876 at the time that the “previous question” was still in use in
its traditional form. Unfortunately both Roberts and his heirs have failed to
change Roberts Rules, and the motion to close debate, is still in the 10th
Edition (2000) referred to as the “Previous Question”. The answer to this can
be found in the use of the Previous Question to this day in the Congress of the
United States, however this is a different motion requiring only a majority
vote and still permitting up to 40 minutes of debate (20 minutes for each
side). The United States Senate does
not permit the previous question but permits debate to be limited by a motion
The subsidiary motion to close
debate (previous question) closes debate (in almost all cases) on the immediate
pending question or when qualified on some or all pending questions and brings
the pending question(s) to an immediate vote without further debate. Sturgis
and Demeter add that it stops further amendment (not always).
- Takes precedence over all lower subsidiary motions,
including the motion to limit or extend debate. It yields to the
subsidiary motion to Lay on the Table, all privileged and incidental
- If unqualified it applies to the immediate pending
motion that is debatable or amendable. If qualified it can also be applied
to all pending questions (including the main motion) or a consecutive
series of pending questions beginning with the immediate pending question.
- Can be used to stop amendment on non-debatable but
amendable motions e.g. the motions to limit/extend debate, recess and fix
a time to adjourn
- Out of order when another has the floor (e.g. calling
- Must be seconded
- Is not debatable
- Is not amendable i.e. you cannot make it into the
motion to extend or limit debate, however further motions to close debate
can be made which include fewer or more pending questions then made in the
original motion (similar to filling in the blanks). The Chair takes the
vote on the motion with the greatest number of pending questions and works
to the lowest i.e. the motion to close debate that applies to only the
immediate question. The further motions are only in order if the motion to
close debate has not been voted on.
- Requires a two thirds vote to protect members’ right
- The motion may be reconsidered but as usual the
motion to reconsider is complex and the following rules apply:
- Can only be reconsidered if no portion of the
motion to close debate has been carried out (vote(s) have been done on
the pending question(s)).
- Can be reconsidered if the motion to close debate
has been lost after the question has been further debated so that a
reasonable expectation that the motion to close debate will succeed
(judgement of Chair which can be appealed)
- Becomes a renewal if a new pending question has
been introduced or one has been dispensed (authors interpretation of the
meaning “whenever progress in business or debate has been such that they
are no longer practically the same question” Roberts page 329)
- A motion to reconsider a vote in the affirmative,
if carried, immediately results in the loss of the order to close debate
(impossible to get 2/3rds on the motion to close debate if a majority has
voted to reconsider)
- Roberts specifically recognizes other forms of the
previous question e.g. motion to close debate or to vote on the question.
He also states that if a member calls for the question and it is obvious
to the Chair (no one has indicated they want to be recognized to speak on
the question) that he can ask if there is any objection to taking the
vote, if the Chair hears none then the Chair can proceed. However if even
one member objects he must put it to a vote (2/3rds to succeed).
- Preambles (“whereas” statements at the beginning of a
resolution are amended last) are not affected if the motion to close
debate has been made on all pending questions. The preamble must still be
opened to debate and amendment before a motion to close debate is in order.
- Vote should be taken standing (or by vote of hands)
to determine if the 2/3rds majority is met.
Rules after Ordered
- An order to close debate (motion to close debate has
been carried) can be interrupted in two ways:
- A subsidiary motion to postpone indefinitely, refer
to committee (commit) or postpone to a definite time is adopted or
- By the questions being laid on the table, a special
order for a particular time, a question of privilege, a recess or an
adjournment. (Chair can proceed to get the votes done if no one objects)
- An order is exhausted (no longer in effect) when:
- All votes under the ordered pending questions have
been carried out.
- A subsidiary motion to postpone indefinitely, or
refer to committee (commit) is adopted and the motions are brought back.
(Note that this does not apply to a motion to postpone definitely, lay on
the table, special order, recess or adjournment – the vote on the
previous question occurs without debate immediately after the
- A session has ended without the order being carried
out i.e. voted on.
- A motion to reconsider a vote under an order is not
- An appeal is un-debatable under an order
- Most questions are also un-debatable under an order except
a matter to be taken up under a special order or a privileged motion.
Assume that there is a motion to
refer to committee, an amendment and a main motion pending:
- “I move the previous question or to close debate, or
to vote immediately” (unqualified it applies to the immediate pending
- “I move to close debate on the motions to refer to
committee and the amendment” (if carried leaves the main motion open to
debate and further amendment)
- “I move to close debate on all pending questions” (if
carried requires a vote on all pending motions and allows no further
- The Chair puts the question to close debate, states
what it covers and specifies what will happen if it is carried or lost.
- Chair takes a rising vote (yeas and nehs stand) or
show of hands.
- If lost, the Chair resumes debate on the pending
Other Authorities and Opinions (differences or additions)
The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure – Alice Sturgis
- Calls it the Motion to Close Debate (in brackets the
previous question, but explains how this is confusing, also disagrees with
the history of the motion in Congress and the Senate from Roberts sited
- States specifically that the to make a motion that
includes in it wording a motion to close debate is not in order. Also
strongly denigrates a situation where a motion is made, and when stated a
motion is immediately made to close debate.
- States that were more then one motion is pending that
the motion to close debate should specify to which it applies.
- Cannot be amended, does not take precedence over the
motion to postpone temporarily (fixed Lay on the table), applies to
debatable motions only, and can have no motion apply to it except the
motion to withdraw.
Demeter’s Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure, George Demeter
- Almost identical to Roberts, though in some respects
it offers a clearer explanation of the rules governing the Previous
Question (he acknowledges it is archaic but keeps the term). He also has a
general limit of 10 minutes on the length of speeches on a question.
- Demeter also has the following to say, which is
slightly different from Roberts and Sturgis:
member may move the previous question on his own motion. A member may not
move the previous question with his own other motion, except by general
consent. Instead, he should propose his first motion, and debate it or not;
then be seated. If after that no one rises to claim the floor to debate that
motion or for any other purpose, then that member may, when the floor is free,
move the previous question preventing further debate on his own pending motion.
previous question. When the previous question (shutting off debate and
amendments) is mischievous, malicious or untimely and premature, simply vote it
down. If it is defeated, it can be reproposed a bit later.” Pages 95&96
Notes and Comments on Roberts Rules, Revised Edition, Jon I. Ericson
makes some excellent clarifying points in plain English. He also states
that the 1981 and 1990 editions of Roberts the editors “relented a bit and
state, "A motion such as 'I call for (or "call") the
question' or 'I move we vote now' is simply a motion for the Previous
Question made in non-standard form"
also addresses the question of whether a member may make a main motion and
immediately move to close debate. He opines, “No, even though a literal
reading of Robert suggests that the answer is yes. In describing
characteristics of subsidiary motions as a class, Robert states, "The
time when they are in order extends from the moment the question on a
motion to which they can be applied is stated by the chair." Robert
then adds a limitation that "the question presented by the subsidiary
motion must not be absurd". To allow a member to move a main motion and
to move to close debate immediately would be "laughingly
inconsistent" with the principles of parliamentary law, and therefore
the answer is no. The intent of the motion is to cease or to stop debate,
which assumes that debate has taken place. The attempt to call for the
previous question before debate has begun is the kind of tactic that leads
to charges of railroading. The Chair should rule that close debate means
that there must be an opportunity for at least one speech by each side.”
also speaks to whether a member may conclude his or her debate by moving
to close debate. He says yes but states, “few tactics anger an assembly
more. To prevent needless friction an organization should adopt a special
rule: a member, while speaking on a motion, may not move to close debate,
or, a member debating a pending motion may not close his or her remarks
with an un-debatable motion.”
also believes that the motion to close debate can be applied to
non-debatable motions, to prevent amendments, close debate may be applied
to motions that are amendable but that are not debatable.” However he then
goes on to inform that Robert states that the application "seldom
serves a useful purpose" (243), and Keesey says this "appears to
be an unnecessarily complicated device" (Modern Parliamentary
Procedure, 52), which applies to the motions to limit or extend limits of
debate, recess, divide the question, fix the time to which to adjourn, and
applies to motions relating to methods of nominations and voting. Keesey
is correct about the "device"-few members, if any, will see the
motion to close debate used for this purpose. Not even a trivia expert
will find this information helpful.
Meeting Procedures – James Lochrie
Procedures for Meetings and Organizations Second Edition, Kerr and
The Procedural Motion to Close
Debate in Kerr and King has some very different rules than other authorities:
- Can only apply to “substantive motions” e.g. main
motion, amendments and not procedural motions e.g. refer to committee,
postpone indefinitely or to a certain time
- Can only be made by someone who has not spoken on the
- A Chair of a Committee has the right to give a
rebuttal speech after the motion to close debate has been made.
- Has an extensive discussion on the confusion of the
Previous Question and what it means in various jurisdictions.
- Other rules are the same.
Bourinot’s Rules of Order, Third Edition Geoffrey Stanford
Bourinot treats the Previous
Question briefly and sets out the traditional rules of the Canadian House of
Commons (as Bourinot’s Rules were first written in 1894 by the Clerk of the Canadian
House of Commons it makes sense) page 51.
- The motion known as "the previous question"
is made in the form "I move that the question be now put." Its
object is to prevent the proposing of amendments or any other intervening
action and thus force a direct vote on the main question.
- The motion must be seconded and may be debated, but
may not be amended.
- If resolved in the affirmative the question must be
put forthwith on the main motion and a decision be reached which will
dispose of it.
- A defeat of a motion for "the previous
question" means in effect that the main motion may not be now put to
the question, and it is thus superseded. The main motion may, however, be
revived on a future day, as the negative of "the previous question"
merely binds the Chair not to put the main question at that time.
- Bourinot also warns that various usages have been
applied at various times to "the previous question"; it should
be employed with caution and with a clear understanding of the end it is
intended to accomplish, viz., a cessation of debate and no further action
prior to a vote on the issue in question, or if the motion fails that such
issue will be temporarily set aside.