by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
Toward the end of the session of the Missouri General Assembly, Republican senators relied on a particular parliamentary procedure to put an end to filibusters and get their bills moved through the Senate before the session ended. Referred to as “calling the previous question,” cloture or even “the nuclear option,” this particular motion is used to close all debate on a bill and force the Senate to immediately vote on the issue.
A motion to call the previous question works something like this: When a bill is being debated or filibustered, a member of the legislative body can make a motion to stop the debate and take a vote. If properly seconded, a vote is then taken on whether they should close debate. If this motion passes, lawmakers immediately vote on the now previous question that was being debated, hence the name of the motion.
Although forcing a vote on an issue is common in the House of Representatives, it is not normally used in the Senate, where senators enjoy the right to debate issues for an unlimited amount of time. This right, of course, can lead to filibustering when a particular senator or group of senators is dissatisfied with the proposed legislation and a compromise hasn’t been achieved.
The right of unlimited debate has been one of the key differences between the House and Senate, at both the state and federal levels, since the founding of our country. As we all learned in grade school, the founding fathers constructed two separate bodies in the legislative branch. The House was to serve as the body that would most directly represent the will of the people. The thought was that the Senate would provide a deliberative balance that would be less susceptible to public opinion and sentiment. Ever since, nearly every state of the Union has adopted the same “bicameral” system for their state legislature. There exists just one exception today: Nebraska did away with its House of Representatives in 1934 for a number of reasons, foremost of which was cost savings.
The rule of unlimited debate is a mainstay in Senate rules because it helps ensure that the majority party respects the rights of the minority. The legislation passed in the General Assembly affects everyone and should reflect, as best possible, all views. Unlimited debate has the effect of slowing down the legislative process and thus acts as an important safety valve that prevents sudden, radical change in our government.
Of course, the right to unlimited debate has been used in some morally reprehensible ways. Democratic senators from the south used the filibuster in the U.S. Senate to stall civil rights legislation from the time of Reconstruction all the way up to the late 1960s.
When asked about the frequent use of calling the previous question in this past session, Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons declared it had been used to circumvent “the tyranny of the minority.” Of course, the threat exists that when Democrats regain the majority, they might use the same technique to silence Republicans.
Although the use of the previous question to halt debate is disturbing enough when used in legislative bodies, it is especially onerous when used by local not-for-profit boards and local governmental boards and commissions. Such organizations usually follow Robert’s Rules of Order as their procedural manual for conducting business. Robert’s Rules allows for a motion to “call the question,” but many members of small boards don’t understand how this motion is used, and the chairperson is often caught off guard by the motion, sometimes confusing it with a point of order – a type of request that doesn’t require a second and must be immediately dealt with. In those organizations that follow Robert’s Rules, any motion to “call the previous question” must be seconded and pass by a supermajority, two-thirds of the voting members present, because it takes away the rights of those in the minority.
The use of the previous question might seem like a clever trick to get a bill passed, but it defeats the purpose of our bicameral legislative system. Its extensive use this past session clearly indicates that something is seriously wrong in Jefferson City. It not only sets a bad precedent, but it represents a radical shift by the majority away from governing our state and toward ruling over it.