Tangled Up in Blue: Rules of Order
We made it! This blog post covers the final resolution in the Blue Book. If you are a parliamentary procedure nerd or a church wonk, I have saved the best for last. This is the report of the House of Deputies Study Committee on the Rules of Order.
Our current President of the House of Deputies, the Rev’d Gay Jennings, has expressed her desire to reform the way the House of Deputies does business — and also to work for General Convention as a whole to legislate more efficiently. Some of this work can be done simply in the way the PHoD carries out her work. Much of the reform effort relies on streamlined and revised Rules of Order for the House of Deputies. While it sounds as exciting as watching paint dry, it’s actually pretty interesting stuff. I can tell you right now, I’m disappointed Gay didn’t take my suggestion to put in a provision for a trap door under the speaking platform to be employed against wayward deputies.
If you want to see what the new rules are about, the committee put a summary of its work online back in December. It’s in plain English, so even someone who hasn’t yet memorized Robert’s Rules can read this and comprehend what’s being done. For even more detail, have a look at their report in the Blue Book, which has both the actual rules and a whole bunch of explanatory prose.
Anyway, here’s the resolution.
A152: Adopt House of Deputies Proposed Rules of Order. Full text. Likely vote: YES.
This replaces the current Rules of Order for the House of Deputies with new rules. This is not a slight tweak, but a complete replacement. Generally the aim is both to simplify how business is done, clarify procedures, and use plain English rather than parliamentary jargon.
A few examples:
- All resolutions must pass through legislative committees. That’s not new. What is new is that by default, all resolutions coming out of committee will go onto what’s called the “consent calendar.” That entire calendar, which might have reports on a dozen or many more resolutions, is voted on in one fell swoop by the House of Deputies. This really speeds up action. There are still plenty of ways to pull stuff off the consent calendar if some group or the proposer, for example, feel that debate of the entire house is warranted.
- Every resolution gets a hearing, and notice has to be given of those hearings. Hearing notices are now placed on the General Convention website instead of the old school bulletin boards. In another bold move, it will be possible in future conventions to schedule hearings before Convention starts. In our current practice, committees have to meet in person once, and then schedule hearings, which means it takes a half day to get spun up to start churning through resolutions. This new practice is more transparent (anyone can see the hearing schedule from anywhere) and more efficient.
- The Committee on Dispatch will now have more power to schedule resolutions in order of priority as they see it, as opposed to being governed by the order stuff comes out of committee. This does vest an enormous amount of power in how Convention deliberates into the hands of a small, unelected committee, but I trust them to shape our agenda based on their experience and to do so impartially. Plus our previous system was pretty lousy, with unimportant resolutions taking up time that we might spend on important resolutions, based on when they popped out of committees.
In general, there is more flexibility in the new rules, because fewer things are specified precisely. I think that’s good. Lest someone worry that we’re compromising the democratic process, the answer is clear. There are 800 deputies who will quickly change the process if it’s not working. Let’s trust each other and our new rules. If this works, it’s a great leap forward. If it doesn’t quite work, we can tweak the rules. We’re approving them, not carving them into stone.
These are examples, and there are many other improvements and tweaks. I have not done an exhaustive point-by-point comparison between the old rules and new rules, but the few places I checked seemed to protect due process while modernizing practice and creating flexibility.
I do have a few minor concerns and questions, but I fully trust the legislative committee which will look at these rules to sort this stuff out.
- In the language about ending debate (“Calling the question”), the new rules say, “May not be made on a Resolution and an amendment at the same time.” I’m not sure what that means. Sometimes when we’ve spent time amending an amendment to a resolution, I am grateful when someone makes a motion to end debate on all matters before the house. We then vote on whether or not we’re ready to end debate, and, if so, votes are taken on the amendment to the amendment, the amendment, and finally on the resolution itself. I would hate to see us require a motion to end debate on an amendment to an amendment, followed by the need for a new motion to end debate not the amendment, and so forth.
- One of our new tricks will be an electronic secret ballot. I do hope we can be assured that these votes are truly secret, if that’s what is promised. Sometimes IT folks get a little zealous about data integrity and keep stuff around that shouldn’t be kept. This is spoken as a former IT professional.
- Nominating speeches are not allowed, except in the case of nominees for president or vice-president of the House of Deputies. Why do we allow these speeches? What limits are there, if any?
- Deputies must be excused by the president to be absent from the floor or if they do not wish to vote on a particular matter. (Otherwise, by rule, all deputies must vote yes or no on every issue. There are no abstentions.) How do we request these excused absences by the president? Do I have to go to microphone and ask for personal privilege? Can I email? Maybe a Tweet with “#gc78 #GottaGo #GimmeAnExcusePlease” hashtags?
- There are new, sensible provisions which allow the chair to end debate if three people speak in favor of a resolution and no one has risen to speak against. I guess our new computer system will show the chair the intent of speakers in queue, and if someone got missed, they will use parliamentary procedure to get the attention of the chair.
- And a quick note. We’d better approve these new rules quickly, because we’re presently in violation of our current rules. The new legislative committee assignments come from our new rules; the old rules required a bazillion more committees. I’m all for this change, and I’m glad it’s been done in advance of Convention for the sake of efficiency. But in order to move to a state in which we are behaving consistently with our rules of order, we should approve these right away. I believe this can be done on the first legislative day.
The new rules, in order to be easy to read and quickly referenced, are in outline form. The old rules were mostly in prose form. While I fully support the change, some part of me will miss some of the old language. An example from under the old rules:
As an indication of our humble dependence upon the Word and Spirit of God, and following the example of primitive Councils, a copy of the Holy Scriptures shall always be reverently placed in view at the meetings of this House. This rule is to be carried into effect under the supervision of the President and Secretary of the House.
Here’s how that reads in the new rules.
I. Holy Scripture and Prayers
A. Placement of Holy Scripture
1. The President and Secretary will ensure that a copy of the Holy Scriptures is reverently displayed at all meetings of the House of Deputies.
The same thing is achieved. I know that we are still dependent on the Word and Spirit of God and do not need to state that. Just noting that I will miss some of the flowery language, the same way I sometimes miss the ink-stained fingers from reading a newspaper.
I think the committee who worked on these rules deserve our great appreciation, as does Gay Jennings for her vision. Thanks to their efforts, we’ll be able to focus more on business and less on the mechanics of business. That is surely a great gift to the House of Deputies and through our improved work, to the church.
When I vote yes on these new rules, I will do so in gratitude for the hard work of our leadership team in advance of this convention to change how we govern ourselves to give us more time to do our work and less time on pointless overhead.