Toronto Parliamentary Society Chapter 51

Toronto Parliamentary Society Chapter 51

American Institute of Parliamentarians


Presentation December 7, 2004

Richard Slee

Close Debate



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.[1]


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 of cloture.[2]




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).




  1. 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 motions.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. Out of order when another has the floor (e.g. calling out “question”)
  5. Must be seconded
  6. Is not debatable
  7. 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.
  8. Requires a two thirds vote to protect members’ right of debate.
  9. The motion may be reconsidered but as usual the motion to reconsider is complex and the following rules apply:
    1. 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)).
    2. 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)
    3. 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)
    4. 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)
  10. 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).
  11. 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.
  12. Vote should be taken standing (or by vote of hands) to determine if the 2/3rds majority is met.

Rules after Ordered


  1. An order to close debate (motion to close debate has been carried) can be interrupted in two ways:
    1. A subsidiary motion to postpone indefinitely, refer to committee (commit) or postpone to a definite time is adopted or
    2. 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)
  1. An order is exhausted (no longer in effect) when:
    1. All votes under the ordered pending questions have been carried out.
    2. 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 interruption)
    3. A session has ended without the order being carried out i.e. voted on.
  1. A motion to reconsider a vote under an order is not debatable.
  2. An appeal is un-debatable under an order
  3. 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:


  1. “I move the previous question or to close debate, or to vote immediately” (unqualified it applies to the immediate pending question)
  2. “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)
  3. “I move to close debate on all pending questions” (if carried requires a vote on all pending motions and allows no further amendment).
  4. The Chair puts the question to close debate, states what it covers and specifies what will happen if it is carried or lost.
  5. Chair takes a rising vote (yeas and nehs stand) or show of hands.
  6. If lost, the Chair resumes debate on the pending question.


Other Authorities and Opinions (differences or additions)

The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure – Alice Sturgis


  1. 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 above)
  2. 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.
  3. States that were more then one motion is pending that the motion to close debate should specify to which it applies.
  4. 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


  1. 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.
  2. Demeter also has the following to say, which is slightly different from Roberts and Sturgis:

“When a 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.

Premature 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


  1. 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" 
  2. Ericson 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.”
  3. Ericson 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.”
  4. He 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


1.      Lochrie simplifies the process amazingly. He basically covers most of the previous authors with these exceptions:

a.       He does not permit reconsideration (praise the Lord)

b.      The exhaustion/interruption rules are somewhat the same though he does not mention recesses (interruption), special orders (interruption) or postpone indefinitely (exhaustion).

c.       Limits speakers to two 5 minute speeches on the same debateable motion


Procedures for Meetings and Organizations Second Edition, Kerr and King


The Procedural Motion to Close Debate in Kerr and King has some very different rules than other authorities:


  1. 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
  2. Can only be made by someone who has not spoken on the question.
  3. A Chair of a Committee has the right to give a rebuttal speech after the motion to close debate has been made.
  4. Has an extensive discussion on the confusion of the Previous Question and what it means in various jurisdictions.
  5. 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.


  1. 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.
  2. The motion must be seconded and may be debated, but may not be amended.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

[1] Darwin Patnode, A History of Parliamentary Procedure, Third Edition, Minniapolis, USA, Parliamentary Publishing, Page 34

[2] Henry Martyn Roberts, Roberts Rules of Order Newly Revised, 10th Edition, Cambridge Massachusetts, USA, Perseus Publishing, Page 193

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