The Explainer: Parliamentary Procedure

When you have legislators behaving badly, decorum goes out the window and politics is reduced to brawling. That’s why there’s such a thing as parliamentary procedure, think of it as traffic rules for senators and congressmen.

Since the Estrada years, our electorate’s gotten a crash course in parliamentary procedure. There’s no reason to think we’re going to see any less of our legislators in action. So for their sake, and ours, I thought we’d undertake a crash course in parliamentary procedure. I’m Manolo Quezon, The Explainer.




Think of it. You’re 29 years old, and suddenly, you’re the Speaker of the first popularly and nationally-elected legislature in our history.

That was the dilemma Sergio Osmena of Cebu faced, when he was elected Speaker of the First Philippine Assembly in 1907. In that historic year, the country’s legislators had to decide between two evolutionary tracks. Would they continue the Spanish system as adopted in the Malolos Congress, or try the American system? The choice was theirs. They chose new rules, American rules, and a Speaker from a new generation.

The US Congress, instead of the Spanish Cortes, became the model for our legislature, though for a time, from 1907 to around 1922, there was also the inclination to look to another Anglo-Saxon system…

The British parliamentary system, for a model for our legislative procedures.

That issue came to be settled starting in 1916, with the creation of the Philippine Senate and a more aggressive attitude by that chamber towards the Chief Executive, who happened to be the American Governor-General at the time.

Think of it. You’re 38 years old and you become the first Senate President in our country’s history. Manuel L. Quezon, that first Senate President elected with the foundation of the Senate in 1916, had been the first majority floor leader of the First Philippine Assembly. He too, then started another evolutionary track, for a Senate with its own rules, traditions, and procedures, not identical to those of the House.

Our bicameral system, conscious of its American antecedents, also looked to political and cultural imagery that went back to the Senate of Rome.

Even as it would grapple with the pattern set for legislatures in dictatorships around the world.


The foundations of the rules –the parliamentary procedure- governing our Congress were therefore laid down in the period 1907-1916. By the 1920s, we could see the difficulties that parliamentary procedure helps sort out.

Take the sleepy looking man you see on the right, on the dais, that’s Speaker Manuel Roxas, circa 1922-23. On one occasion he was kicked in the shins by an angry congressman.

Indeed the 1920s seems to have been a wild and wooly period for our legislators.

This Philippines Free Press editorial cartoon from the era shows the unseemly quarreling that accompanied committee assignments in the House.

But another Free Press editorial cartoon shows another, more lethal, problem. Congressmen took to showing up at sessions with their guns and their behavior became a national scandal.

In the end, though, things sorted themselves out and when you come to think of how passionate we are about our politics, we’ve maintained, overall, an amazing decorum in our legislative affairs.

And we’ve established our own long-standing heritage of parliamentary procedure.

Parliamentary procedure, or the rules governing the meetings and work of our two chambers of Congress, has a logic all its own.

An authority on parliamentary procedure, Demeter writes:

.. the object of parliamentary law [is] to transact the assembly’s business legally and to control the conduct of its members…Rules are necessary because it is dangerous to rely on the inspiration of the moment for standards of action or conduct. Hence, rules are set up for three necessary purposes:

(1) For orderly procedure. Without it, the meeting would result in utter confusion, chaos and disorder–just as would be the case in a ball game or card game if there were no rules to go by and each player did as he pleased.

(2) For the protection and liberty of the minority. That is why, for instance, parliamentary law provides that “Every member shall have the right to debate main motions,” and “Debate cannot be shut off except by a two-thirds vote of the body,” thus affording the minority freedom of speech and liberty from constraint.

(3) For the expression of the will of the majority. It is axiomatic that an assembly functions best when the majority rules. Hence, democratic self-government implies that the minority, however convinced of its own wisdom, consents to be ruled by the majority, until in orderly process it can make itself the majority.


So to recap, Demeter identifies five great principles underlying the rules of parliamentary law:

1. Order; that is there must be orderly procedure.

2. Equality; that is, all members are equal before the rule or law.

3. Justice. That is, “justice for all.”

4. Right of the minority to be heard on questions.

  1.       5.  Right of the majority to rule the organization.

With those principles in mind, when we come back, we’ll try to simulate some parliamentary procedural problems when we return.




That was another scene of legislators –this time, female legislators in Taiwan- behaving badly.

Here’s a book written in the 1960s by Inocencio Pareja, former Secretary of the House. It covers the rules of the House of Representatives. I’ts interesting to note that in 1999, then Speaker Manuel Villar, Jr. gave his fellow congressmen a copy of this, by that time, elderly book.

It’s interesting because the transmission of then President Joseph Estrada’s articles of impeachment to the Senate, was made possible by Villar studying these rules, and finding a way to get it past a defense line of congressmen lined up to prevent it.


Tonight, we have with us a veteran legislator, Victor Ortega of La Union.

A brief description of his work experience. Rep. Ortega has been in the House not once, but four times: he’s a congressman, at present, and before that, he was a congressman from 1987 to 1998. Along the way he’s been governor and vice-governor of La Union, a delegate to the 1971-73 Constitutional Convention, and even earlier, a technical assistant in the office of Speaker Cornelio Villareal.

We’ve asked Rep. Ortega to walk us through the basics of parliamentary procedure, in its two aspects.

The first aspect governs the House of Representatives, when it meets in session.

The second aspect, governs the House’s component committees, of which he chairs one of the most news-worthy ones, the House Committee on Constitutional Amendments.

Now thanks to the magic of the internet, you can look up two of the main sources used by private and public people alike, to run their meetings smoothly.

They’re Robert’s Rules of Order, put together in the late 19th Century by this man-

And Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure, used as a guide by most American legislative bodies.

We’ll be referring to these and other sources as we go through the tricky path of parliamentary procedure with Rep. Ortega.

First, we will give this hammer, properly known as a gavel, to Rep. Ortega.

You can see this picture of Claro M. Recto, as President of the 1935 Constitutional Convention, with his own gavel. Now stylish as his photo is, according to one authority, his pose is all wrong.

Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised provides guidelines on the proper use of the gavel in deliberative assemblies such as Congress. For instance, the chair is never to use the gavel in an attempt to drown out a disorderly member; rather, the chair should give one vigorous tap at a time at intervals. The chair should not lean on the gavel, juggle or toy with it, or use it to challenge or threaten or to emphasize remarks. The prohibited practice of a chair cutting off members’ right to debate or introduce secondary motions by quickly putting a question to vote before any member can get the floor is referred to as “gaveling through” a measure.

Demeter’s Manual notes that, in addition to an optional light tap after a vote, there are three other uses of a gavel:

1. To attract attention and call a meeting to order. In most organizations, two raps raise and one rap seats the assembly; in others, two raps raise and three raps seat it.

2. To maintain order and restore it when breached in the course of the proceedings. (Rap the gavel once, but vigorously.)

3. To be handed over to successors in office or to officiating officers as ceremonials, etc. (Always extend the holding end.)


And so, with the third of Demeter’s purposes in mind, let’s promote Rep. Ortega to Speaker and ask him to preside over the opening of this session.

Rep. Ortega, what procedures are followed?

[simulate opening of session, call to order, etc.]

At this point, Presiding Officer Ortega can then deal with what are called motions.

Rep. Ortega, what sorts of motions do you deal with in the House?


So as Rep. Ortega’s explained, Robert’s Rules of Order divide motions into five classes:

1.Main motions, those that bring business before the assembly when no other motion is pending.

2. Subsidiary motions, which affect the main motion being considered.

3. Incidental motions, which affect rules and procedures that are not specifically tied to a particular main motion.

4. Privileged motions, which are urgent matters that must be dealt with immediately, even if they interrupt pending business.

5. Motions that bring a matter again before the assembly.

Classes 2, 3 and 4 are collectively referred to as “secondary motions”.

The main motion may be made in the form of a resolution, which is always submitted in writing. A preamble containing several paragraphs explaining the background of and/or justification for the proposed action is often included, but is not required.

According to Robert’s Rules of Order, the privileged motions are, in order of precedence:

1. Fix the time to which to adjourn, if another question is pending.

2. Adjourn, but not if qualified or if adjournment would dissolve the assembly.

3. Take a recess, if another question is pending.

4. Raise a question of privilege

5. Call for orders of the day

[ask Rep. Ortega when he encounters these]

Now let’s move on to what Robert’s Rules of Order recognizes as seven subsidiary motions. Ranked lowest to highest in order of precedence, they are the motions to:

Postpone indefinitely — to end consideration of the main motion for the balance of that session, without a direct vote on the main motion.

Amend— to change the main motion. (May also be applied to certain other motions).

Commit or Refer — to send the main motion and any pending subsidiary motions to a committee for consideration.

Postpone to a certain time (or Postpone Definitely, or Postpone) — to delay consideration of the main motion and any pending subsidiary motions.

Limit or extend limits of debate — to change limitations on number or length of speeches from those previously adopted.

Previous Question — to close debate, preclude any further amendments and vote immediately. (May apply to any motion or pending series of motions.)

Lay on the Table (or Table) — to suspend consideration of the main motion and any pending subsidiary motions to allow for immediate consideration of more urgent business.

Motions 1, 2, 3 and 4 are debatable and require a majority vote for adoption. Motions 5 and 6 are undebatable and require a two-thirds vote for adoption. Motion 7 is undebatable and requires a majority vote for adoption. Each subsidiary motion ranks higher than the main motion and lower than the privileged motions, and also yields to applicable incidental motions.

According to Robert’s Rules of Order[1], the privileged motions are, in order of precedence:[2]

Fix the time to which to adjourn, if another question is pending.

Adjourn, but not if qualified or if adjournment would dissolve the assembly.

Take a recess, if another question is pending.

Raise a question of privilege

Call for orders of the day

When we return, the motions that cause the most movement on the floor.




At this point, Presiding Officer Ortega will discuss Incidental motions: there are 11 motions or requests falling into this category, including to

appeal the decision of the chair,

consideration by paragraph or seriatim,

division of a question,

objection to the consideration of a question,

parliamentary inquiry,

point of information,

point of order,

request for permission to withdraw or modify a motion, and to

suspend the rules.

Finally, there are:

Disciplinary procedures, in parliamentary procedure, are used to enforce a deliberative assembly‘s rules.

Disciplinary procedures:


Declare the chair vacant



IV. My view


It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. This applies to life as much as sports. In this clickety-clickety age, we should resist the tendency to ignore the rules, and to think it’s somehow fake to abide by the rules when we feel political passions.

Abiding by the rules is the guarantee that out of power, you will not suffer tyranny, and that once in power, you will not become a tyrant. It is about courtesy to others because you respect yourself enough to insist on rules and decorum for everyone.

But there’s also such a thing as leading by example. We have much to learn from veterans in politics like our guest tonight, sticklers for the rules, as they are.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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