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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

No Such Thing As a Friendly Amendment

Sometimes, during debate on a motion, a member of the body will say, “I’d like to make a friendly amendment.” Now, doesn’t that sound like downright congenial? Too bad there’s no such thing in Robert’s Rules.

What movers of such an amendment typically mean is that they don’t anticipate any objection from the mover of the main motion. They’re suggesting some minor change in wording that they figure will make the main motion more likely to pass. Often, the mover of the motion will respond by saying, “I have no objection to that change in wording. In fact, I wish I'd thought of it. Can we just incorporate it into my motion?”

Moderators who are running a tight parliamentary ship will blow the whistle at that point, reminding the body: “There’s no such thing as a friendly amendment. There are only amendments, and all amendments are created equal. We’ll need to vote on this amendment as we would any other.”

So – you may be wondering – what’s the big deal? If the mover of the motion is happy with it, and the seconder has no objection, why not just allow a quick adjustment in wording? After all, doesn’t the motion belong to the member who made it?

Not any longer. Robert’s says that, as soon as debate begins, a motion no longer belongs to the mover. It belongs to the body, and only the body can make changes to it.

Now, I realize that may sound, to some, like parliamentary hair-splitting. But, there’s a good reason for it. Maybe some other members of the body like the original motion just fine, and don’t think the “friendly amendment” is a good idea. If the “friendly amendment” sleight of hand is allowed to proceed, those members have just lost their right to be heard on the subject. And that’s not something Robert’s Rules will allow to happen.

It’s similar to the situation in which the mover of a motion asks to withdraw a motion. Usually this happens after the mover has heard some of the debate, and has become convinced the motion isn’t such a hot idea after all.

The proper parliamentary answer to that request is: “I’m sorry, but once a motion is made and seconded, it belongs to the body. You are certainly entitled to speak against the motion you’ve just made, but we’re still going to have to vote on it, once debate is ended.”

Again, the reason is that some other members of the body may be more enthusiastic about the motion than even its mover. Some of those folks may have been thinking, as the motion was made, “Yes! That’s just what we should be doing.” Maybe some of them are just champing at the bit, now, to get up and wow the body with their eloquent oratory, but – slam, bam! – before they know it, the motion they like so well is no more. And, it happened without so much as a vote!

Robert’s Rules is very protective of the right to free and open debate. A duly made and seconded motion can only be dealt with – whether approved, denied, changed or referred – by the body itself, not by any individual members (no matter how “friendly” they may be).

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