Robert’s Rules for Presiding over a Debate
If you’re a presiding officer, your leadership skills and knowledge of Robert’s Rules are clearly on display when you’re chairing a meeting during the consideration of a motion that sparks a lot of debate.
When it comes to presiding, your number-one duty is to know the rules. The rules for discussion and debate get quite a workout in meetings, so if you know the rules, you’ll do just fine. And if you don’t know them, sooner or later you’ll wish you did.
Starting the debate
A debate is in order only when a motion is on the floor. After the motion is on the floor, it’s up to the members and you as the presiding officer to work as a team to figure out what, if anything, the assembly wants to do with the motion.
Your job while presiding is to keep up with who has spoken and who wants to speak. You control the assignment of the floor and handle discussion and secondary motions until no further discussion is forthcoming, or until members close debate or otherwise dispose of the motion.
Assigning the floor
Knowing that members control decisions but the chair controls the floor is at the heart of successful presiding. Early in a discussion, the situation is pretty clear. Members rise and address the chair, and you basically want to take them in the order they seek recognition — first come, first served. But when things become a little more complicated, you need to know who gets preference to have the floor.
Deciding whom to recognize
As the presiding officer, you decide which members get recognized and assigned the floor. And as with any other decision of the chair, if you’re in doubt about who’s entitled to recognition, you can ask the members and let them vote on whom to recognize.
When an assembly is huge and people are lining up at microphones, Robert’s Rules allows you to modify the rules based on the situation, at least until you adopt the special rules you need to manage all the people who want to speak. But when it’s not so big, the decision is usually routine. If you’re not sure whether an interruption by a member is in order, before recognizing the member, simply say, “For what purpose does the member rise?” Based on the response, you make your decision on whether to recognize the member; if his purpose is in order, you recognize him. If not, you inform him that his purpose is not in order at this time.
In any case, if you err in assigning the floor, your assignment is subject to a point of order. And for the most part, except in mass meetings and large meetings such as conventions, the chair’s ruling is subject to appeal.
Refraining from debate
Your job is to facilitate the members making all the points on an issue. If you feel strongly about an issue, hope your political allies can handle advancing your goals from the floor. You must not give them any edge or advantage. The appearance of impartiality is the key to presiding over debate. Nobody expects you to be impartial; chances are good that you were elected because you have a program you hope to advance. But when you’re presiding, stick to the job at hand.
If you absolutely must engage in the debate, you’re obligated to turn the chair over to a chairman pro tem and step down from the chair until the motion is disposed of.
Handling an appeal
The rules for assigning the floor during a debatable appeal are generally the same as in any discussion, except that members may speak only once, but the chair may speak not only once, but twice!
The chair gets to speak first — after the appeal has been moved and seconded — to explain the ruling. Then, after everyone else has had a say, the chair speaks again to respond to the points made by the members and explain the ruling further before taking a vote on the appeal.
Closing debate and taking the vote
Because of the right of members to enjoy all the time the group is willing to spend in debate, it’s not in order to move so quickly to the voting as to silence a member who legitimately seeks the floor to speak or make a secondary motion. Robert’s Rules calls this practice of silencing members gaveling through, and it’s looked upon as particularly contemptible. If you ignore a member who seeks recognition before voting starts and proceed to take a vote, then the vote must be disregarded and debate reopened, even if the result has been announced. However, when you’ve made sure the members have a full opportunity to claim the floor before you move on to the voting, it’s too late to reopen debate after voting has begun.
The debate remains closed even if the vote is not conclusive and if additional votes are necessary to determine the result.