(This Paper explains the order of precedence existing within the set of subsidiary motions. While some of the characteristics of the motions are included here to assist in the understanding of precedence, they are not complete and reference should be made to Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised  for full details.)
One of the fundamental principles underlying parliamentary law states that:
Only one question can be considered at a time. Once a motion is before the assembly, it must be adopted or rejected by a vote, or the assembly must take action disposing of the question in some other way, before any other business (except certain matters called “privileged questions”) can be brought up.
In order to not violate this principle, a secondary motion must be of such a nature that, in relation to the main motion, it must be acted upon or disposed of before direct consideration of the main question can be continued.
One class of secondary motions is the group known as subsidiary motions. This class is distinguished by having the following four characteristics which all apply to its constituent motions:
There are seven motions in the class of subsidiary motions, all of which rank above a main motion in order of precedence. They are, in sequence from lowest rank to highest rank:
Let’s first look at the purpose and situation for each of these motions. This will lead to some conclusions on the precedence developed for them.
Postpone Indefinitely is used to dispose of an embarrassing main motion, such as one that is badly worded, is purely dilatory, or is inappropriate for the assembly to consider. Adoption of this motion kills the main motion for the duration of the current session. This motion can be debated but cannot be amended, nor can it be applied to any other motion.
The logic for its having the lowest rank is that, if members do not wish to discuss the main motion on the floor, it provides a quick way for removing the latter before time is wasted.
Amend provides the opportunity for members to make the main motion more acceptable or suitable by modifying the wording. Within limits, even the meaning of the main motion can be changed. This motion can be debated and amended, and can even, in limited circumstances, be applied to motions of higher precedence.
Its position in second place in precedence among subsidiary motions means that members, having decided that the main motion is one they wish to consider, then have the opportunity to mould it to their satisfaction before approving it.
Commit or Refer is used to send the pending question to a small, selected group of people to investigate, discuss and frame in better shape for the assembly to consider. It may be debated or amended only within limitations, and cannot have Postpone Definitely or Lay on the Table applied to it directly.
Its place in third position of precedence is a natural sequel to Amend; the members decide that they want to improve the main motion, but that a small group can do so more effectively than the assembly as a whole.
Postpone to a Certain Time (or Definitely) allows the members to set a more convenient time to consider the main motion, possibly when more members can be present or when particular information can be available. It may be debated or amended only within limitations, and cannot have Lay on the Table applied to it directly.
The motion’s position in fourth place of precedence evolves from the assembly’s determination that it cannot deal with the main motion at the present time, nor is it ready to send the main motion to a committee.
Limit or Extend Debate provides the means for the assembly to exercise special control over debate on the pending question or series of pending questions. The number or length of speeches can be reduced or expanded, or the total length of debate can be fixed, increased or decreased. The motion can be amended but not debated; it requires a two-thirds vote for approval. Lay on the Table cannot be applied to it directly.
At fifth place of precedence, this is the first motion to be non-debatable and the first motion that has no impact on the content of the main motion. Clearly, allowing debate to occur on this motion would be in direct conflict with the intent of the motion.
Previous Question immediately closes debate, and precludes the introduction of any subsidiary new motion (except the higher ranking Lay on the Table) until the pending motion has been voted on. The motion is not debatable or amendable, requires a two-thirds vote for approval, and yields only to Lay on the Table.
Since the motion brings all debate to a halt, it only makes sense for it to be in sixth place of precedence, for use when all channels to improve the main motion have been exhausted.
Lay on the Table has nothing to do with the main motion or the debate surrounding it. This motion enables the assembly to put the pending question aside temporarily, but only when something of immediate emergency arises. It is not debatable or amendable. When approved, it lays on the table the main motion and all subsidiary motions that have been attached to it. As already seen, it cannot lay any subsidiary motion alone on the table.
The motion holds the highest ranking position of all of the subsidiary motions by virtue of its purpose – to address an emergency.
The rules for precedence of these motions have evolved over time, based on experience in usage. Some observations can be made:
- the ranking of subsidiary motions has a logical progression from allowing maximum discussion of the main motion to recognition that the time has come to speed up the process.
- direct impact on the wording of the main motion decreases as the ranking of the subsidiary motion increases.
- the opportunity for debate decreases as the ranking increases.
- in some cases, subsidiary motions of lower rank can be applied to those of higher rank.
- more than one subsidiary motion can be applied to a main motion at the same time, provided the rules of precedence are observed (it is possible for all seven to be applied).
Peter Crabtree, C.P.