If there’s one reason people hate meetings, it’s because they drag on forever with needless discussion. According to Robert’s Rules, closing debate and moving directly to a vote on a motion – via a specific motion called “Previous Question” – is one (sometimes popular) way to speed things along. But ending debate on a motion only works when it’s done properly (i.e., when parliamentary procedure is followed). Here are five essential facts to know before you try to end debate and shorten up those meetings:
1. “Previous Question” Means to Close Debate and Vote Immediately
When someone says, “I move the previous question” or “I call the question” or just says “question,” they are asking to close debate and vote immediately on the motion that’s on the floor.
British parliament has sketchy historical records about the original use of this term sometime in the 1600s. It’s not tremendously clear why and how the original phrase was coined, but it allegedly arose during a lengthy and disputed parliamentary discussion and then has continued to be used to the present day (though rarely) to communicate, “We need to wrap things up here and vote already.”
History aside — because the meaning of the term “previous question” is no longer readily apparent — I recommend simply saying “close debate” instead. In my view, most meetings have enough confusion on their own. No need to add more by using terms that most of the group does not understand.
2. The Person Who Moves the “Previous Question” Must Be Recognized First
Meeting participants often want to interrupt a speaker to make the motion to close debate. For example, they want to find an unused microphone and say, “I call the previous question.” Or they want to yell “question” from the back of the room.
But the motion to close debate does not have interrupting privileges. If a member wants to move to close debate, she must get in line and seek recognition like any other member waiting to discuss the motion. Importantly, though, a member can seek recognition to offer comments on the motion and at the end of the comments move to close debate.
3. “Previous Question” Is Not Debatable
This point needs little explanation. Quite simply, there’s no need to debate whether to close debate. The point of “Previous Question” is to move the meeting along. Why defeat that purpose with even more discussion?
4. “Previous Question” Requires a Two-Thirds Majority for Adoption
Because the right to discussion is a fundamental right of every member, the motion to close debate requires a two-thirds majority vote. This fact is a basic rule dictated by Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised.
5. A Vote on “Previous Question” Is Not a Vote on the Main Motion
A member that moves to close debate and vote immediately on the main motion is moving to stop discussion. As I just noted, that action needs a two-thirds majority to be adopted. If the motion to close debate receives a two-thirds majority, the group should immediately turn to a vote on the main motion. There’s no more discussion because this vote just closed debate. But you still need a separate vote on the main motion.
I find that members often get confused here because they think that voting on the motion to close debate somehow also takes care of the main motion. It doesn’t. You need a vote first on ending debate (two-thirds majority) and then a vote on the main motion itself (likely only a simple majority).
In sum, next time you sense that a discussion has dragged on for a little too long, feel free to move to close debate. Just remember the essentials!