Robert’s Rules

I’ve been thinking about Robert’s Rules of Order.


Okay, thanks to the two of you who didn’t stop reading.  You must be lawyers.  Who else possibly could be interested in reading about Robert’s Rules?

I consider myself an expert in Robert’s Rules of Order.  Well, “expert” is a relative term.  Put me on some sadistic version of Jeopardy where every category is a different chapter of Robert’s Rules and I’ll lose to the real experts, quickly.  Compare me, however, to the population in general, and I’m an expert.  I probably know more about Robert’s Rules than 98% of the population.  However, that’s not saying much.  I’m an expert only because most people, when asked if they know Robert’s Rules answer, “Don’t know and don’t care.”

To make a wild guess, I’d say that three quarters of the people in the United States have never heard of Robert’s Rules.  Probably half of those people who have heard of Robert’s Rules know it only because they once were in an organization whose bylaws said that meetings would be governed by Robert’s Rules.  Those people don’t actually know anything about Robert’s Rules; in fact, they lived in fear that in some meeting someone (probably a lawyer) would say something like, “Under Robert’s Rules of Order, that motion is out of order.”

Robert’s Rules of Order is a book that sets forth the rules by which “deliberative assemblies” operate – deliberative assemblies are groups like Parliament, the House of Representatives, state legislatures, town councils, boards of directors, etc.  The book sets forth the rules to be followed in order to discuss issues and conduct votes on those issues in a fair and orderly manner.  What kind of rules?  Rules like who gets to talk, when, for how long, who votes, how are votes conducted, changing your mind, etc.  (The House and Senate only use Robert’s Rules in their first session, at which they adopt their own rules.)

I bought my copy of Robert’s Rules of Order around 1980.  I bought it because my professional work was taking me into meetings where clients expected me to help them run meetings.  Referring to my copy of the book gave me a little extra time to invent an answer.  Yes, invent; I rarely found the actual answer in the book – it’s over 500 pages, and there wasn’t time to browse for an answer.  Referring to the book also lent an air of gravitas, an air I needed desperately.  Over thirty years, I may have looked at the book twenty times.

Just to give the guy his fifteen minutes, Robert’s Rules of Order was first written by Henry Martyn Robert around 1875.  I’m not quite sure what to make of Henry Martyn Robert; I’ve often heard not to trust a man with two first names; three is concerning, for sure.  He’s entitled to no more than fifteen minutes, because on almost every page you can find sentences like this:  “To Raise a Question of Privilege is a device that permits a request or main motion relating to the rights and privileges of the assembly or any ot its members to be brought up for possible immediate consideration because of its urgency, while business is pending and the request or motion would otherwise be out of order.”  (Emphasis in original.)  If you’re interested in seeing more great prose like that, buy your own copy.

To paraphrase Colonel Jessup, “Now, is this really what I was called here to read about? Deadly dull books and first name nonsense? Please tell me that you have something more, counselor. This country is on trial for its life. Please tell me their lawyer hasn’t pinned our hopes to a dusty old rule book.”

Well, the reason I’ve been thinking about Robert’s Rules is that the New York Times had an interesting opinion piece a few weeks ago by William S. Cohen and Alton Frye.  The authors said that now is the time to elect a Speaker of the House who is not an actual member of the House.  In fact, two years ago (or four) might have been time, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Apparently, there is some evidence, very good evidence for all I know, that the Founding Fathers expected the Speaker of the House to be someone from the outside, someone to help facilitate the legislative process, and not someone who was in some sense the leader of their faction.  I wondered why the Speaker should come from outside the elected members of the House.  And that’s when I thought of Robert’s Rules.

Under Robert’s Rules, the chair of the meeting is the only person entitled to speak more or less anytime they want.  Everyone else must remain silent until the chair grants someone else permission to speak in accordance with the rules.  As I thought about, it became clear to me why we call the chair of the House the “Speaker.”  Only the Speaker can, well, speak.

What’s another word for a deliberative body where only one person can speak?  Right, a dictatorship.  “This is the way it’s going to be.  Any dissent?  Of course not, the rules are that you can’t speak.  Okay, that’ll do it for today.  Go out there and do all the things I said.  Come back tomorrow and we’ll talk again.  Good discussion!”

The role of the chair therefore should NOT be to dictate the outcome.  The chair’s job is to facilitate the discussion about questions and the votes that decide what action the deliberative body will take.  That’s why Robert’s Rules prohibits the chair from participating in debate of an issue.  The chair must not speak to the issue, because it would be unfair to allow the discussion to be controlled by the only person with unlimited authority to speak.

The notion that the Speaker was intended to function like the chair of a meeting under Robert’s Rules shows us that the founding fathers expected the House of Representatives to function like a committee, working cooperatively to make decisions for the governance and operation of the country.  The committee is supposed to work in the best interests of the country, and the Speaker’s job is to get the committee, the whole committee, to do it’s job.  The governance problem we have in Washington is that our representatives have lost sight of that simple idea.  Electing a partisan leader, Republican or Democrat, who is expected by their party to use the rules to impose the will of their party is a fundamental distortion of the principles of American representative democracy.

Henry Martyn Robert, three first names or not, knew that much.

6 Replies to “Robert’s Rules”

  1. Regarding your comment “the founding fathers expected the House of Representatives to function like a committee,” this is another instance in which our overly illustrious founding fathers screwed up. Any half-way competent lawyer, intending that expectation would have written, in Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution: “The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker, WHO SHALL NOT BE A MEMBER, and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”

  2. Under rules of succession in the event of death or removal of president is first VP and then Speaker!
    Can you imagine Trump coming back trough speakership role and not having been elected?

  3. Dear Mark, here is someone else who is interested in Robert’s Rules of Order. I enjoyed your take on the subject. Generally, the boards on which I have sat have not followed the Rules. But one (national) board actually has periodic sessions in which a parliamentarian instructs the membership on Robert’s Rules. This is so we can take the Rules back to our local boards and apply them there. But this just adds to the frustration for someone who wants to follow the rules. Among other things, following the rules is important in making clear what the board is discussing and voting on.

  4. Having waded all the way through this (and agreeing with you about three first names) I am actually glad to have read it. You make a great point, Mark. If only civilized discourse, a real facilitator and collaborative decision making were characteristic of Congress!

  5. Thanks for an entertaining read, Mark. Making Congress function is well above my pay grade, so instead I’ll offer two personal observations about Robert’s Rules.
    1. I had two copies of abridged versions in my office for decades, often borrowed by panicked attorneys on their way to an annual board meeting where the Rules were to apply.
    2. The Rules were tyoically invoked by a board member who thought he (yes, always a “he”) knew the Rules and was beyond delighted to scold a free-speaking colleague and shut down constructive discussion. The mere mention of “Robert’s” was usually enough to leave the rogue speaker chastened.

  6. Dear Mark & Co.

    If the Founders were prescient enough to anticipate General Roberts’ opus, they would have been better advised to put something in their own opus about the Civil War, certain racial anomalies, and Donald Trump.

    Anachronistically yours,
    Ev Newton

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