4 Answers to Your Questions about “Previous Question”
It’s the parliamentary procedure version of killing two birds with one stone—a special motion that can simultaneously end a long period of discussion and move things along to a vote.
As a follow-up to my prior blog post on cutting unneeded discussion during your business meeting, this post presents another way to wrap up debate, called “Previous Question.” Here are four answers to common questions about this motion.
1. What is “Previous Question”?
“Previous Question” is a separate motion to close debate. Sometimes discussion about a topic gets lengthy and this is a member-initiated move to expedite things.
It’s an old tradition, dating several centuries back within parliamentary procedure, and it’s used when someone wants the group to stop discussion and immediately vote on the main motion that’s on the floor.
The name of the motion—“Previous Question”—is an abbreviation for the words traditionally used to introduce it: “I move the previous question.”
2. How can a member introduce the “Previous Question” motion?
First—and this is key—the member who wants to end debate on the motion being discussed has to be recognized by the Chair to speak. Interrupting by yelling out, “Call the question” or just “Question” is not okay. Order is a big thing in parliamentary procedure. And Robert’s Rules of Order says that in an official board or business meeting, order is maintained by one person speaking at a time, and it’s typically the Chair’s call on who talks when.
Once a member gets permission to speak, she can introduce this motion with just one comment. The member can simply say, “I move the previous question” or “I call the question” or even just “Question.”
But to be honest, it’s an old and confusing name for a motion. So, I’d like to propose the use of the more modern synonym for this motion. I recommend saying, “Close debate.”
Here’s the ideal scenario.
- A motion is made.
- The motion is seconded.
- The Chair invites discussion.
- Members interested in arguing for the motion—the “pro” side—line up at one microphone. And those interested in arguing against the motion—the “con” side—line up at the other mic. (And if you only have one mic, that’s okay too.)
- The Chair recognizes each speaker in line, one at a time, alternating between pro and con.
- When discussion gets lengthy, one of the individuals in line who has been recognized to speak makes her comment on the motion, and then she says, “I move to close debate.”
- The Chair takes a vote on closing debate, and if it passes, moves to a vote on the main motion.
3. What vote is required to adopt a “Previous Question” motion?
This one is unusual in the Robert’s Rules world. Instead of normal adoption by a majority vote (generally defined as at least half of those members in good standing, present, and voting), the motion to close debate requires two-thirds in favor of ending discussion.
And there’s good reason. Just like order is a fundamental principle in parliamentary procedure, so is a member’s right to discuss decisions of the group. If you’re going to deny a member that right, Robert’s Rules wants at least two-thirds of those voting to say so.
4. Does the vote to close debate serve as a vote on the main motion?
No. Two separate motions are in play here, and so two separate votes are needed.
Vote #1 is to close debate and move on immediately to vote #2—a vote on the main motion. If, during vote #1, two-thirds of those voting say “yes” to ending debate, the group should turn to vote #2 immediately—no more discussion.
A Final Encouragement to the Chair
Don’t get rattled by someone shouting that they “call for the question” from the back of the room. And don’t feel the need to acquiesce just because they are persistent or confident. Simply remind the group that “any member who wants to speak may line up at the mic.”