Robert’s Rules for Disposing of a Main Motion

By C. Alan Jennings, PRP

One sure thing in the world of meetings and Robert’s Rules is that, sooner or later, all motions are disposed of. No, that doesn’t mean they’re thrown out. (Well, some of them are, but that’s not how the term is used here.) Disposing of a motion simply refers to making some decision about the motion so that you can move on to the next item of business — in other words, it’s the end result of all the talk.

The subsidiary motions are the tools you use to help dispose of the main motions in your meetings.

For example, imagine that somebody in your volunteer fire company moves “to buy a new fire truck.” During discussion, it becomes clear that the color can affect the price, and you don’t want to make a decision (and thus dispose of the main motion) until you decide on the color. So you move to insert “green” before “fire truck” because you know the Hot Shot Fire Truck Catalog offers one on sale because nobody buys green fire trucks much anymore.

But before the group can dispose of the subsidiary motion to Amend, Lax Luster moves to amend the amendment by striking out “green” and inserting “red” instead. Unfortunately, your presiding officer, Chief Slow Pitch (who hasn’t read Robert’s Rules anyway), is getting confused.

But all is not lost. Ben Dare (the member who usually drives to the fires) wants a new fire truck, and he wants the right one at the right price. He knows that the group needs to dispose of Lax’s amendment before it can work on your amendment, and the group has to dispose of your amendment before it can get back to the original question of whether to buy a fire truck in the first place.

Ben also knows that the group doesn’t have enough time to discuss the issue any further in this meeting, so he moves to Refer (a really handy subsidiary motion for complicated or time-consuming motions) the main motion and the pending amendments to a committee composed of himself, you, and Lax, with instructions that the committee report its recommendations next month.

The motion to refer passes, and voilà — not only have you disposed of the motion to refer, but you’ve also disposed (temporarily) of the main motion and two subsidiary motions (the pending amendments). Now you can move on to the next item of business.

Arriving at a final disposition for a motion can (and often does) require one or more subsidiary decisions. Hence, Robert’s Rules establishes the term subsidiary motions.

Any or all of the issues specifically related to a motion itself are dealt with in an orderly manner through the use of the subsidiary motions.

The subsidiary motions (listed in order of rank, from lowest to highest) are as follows:

  • Postpone Indefinitely
  • Amend
  • Commit or Refer
  • Postpone to a Certain Time (or Definitely)
  • Limit or Extend Limits of Debate
  • Previous Question
  • Lay on the Table

Check out the most common use for each subsidiary motion.

If You Want To . . . Then Use . . .
Avoid taking a direct vote on a motion Postpone Indefinitely
Change the wording of the motion Amend
Have a committee discuss a motion in detail and come back with a recommendation Commit or Refer
Discuss a motion later in the meeting, or maybe put it off until your next meeting Postpone to a Certain Time (or Definitely)
Provide for a certain amount of time for discussion of the motion, either for the subject matter or for each speaker Limit or Extend Limits of Debate
End debate on the motion and vote now Previous Question
Stop dealing with the motion temporarily to allow something of an urgent nature to be done immediately Lay on the Table