The Principles of Parliamentary Procedure – a Stepping Stone to Learning the Rules

By Julie Pelegrin

Editor’s note: During the 2020 legislative interim, LegiSource will repost several articles on the legislative rules, which were originally posted during 2014 and 2015. We are posting the first article this week and will continue posting the articles approximately every other week through mid-December. This article was originally posted January 23, 2014.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a legislator is learning the legislative rules. Even if you are not a committee chair or serving in a leadership role, you need at least a general understanding of the legislative rules to be an effective legislator. The rules are at the heart of the legislative process. They are the framework that helps ensure that the legislature’s process for creating public policy is open, balanced, and efficient. A legislator’s facility with properly using the legislative rules can mean the difference between a bill signing ceremony and a vote to postpone indefinitely.

The legislative rules derive from several sources, and they are usually followed in this order of precedence:

  1. The state constitution and judicial opinions interpreting it;
  2. The rules adopted by the House of Representatives and the Senate;
  3. The traditions of the House and the Senate, referred to as “custom and usage”;
  4. Statutes that establish legislative procedures;
  5. Adopted parliamentary manuals such as Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure; and
  6. General parliamentary law.

It is important to remember, however, that House Rule 46 mandates that the Speaker of the House decides any issues that are not specifically covered in the House rules. Senate Rule 40 states that Mason’s Manual governs procedure in the Senate so long as it does not conflict with the Senate rules or the Joint Rules of the House and the Senate. The Senate President decides any matter not covered by the legislative rules or Mason’s Manual.

Obviously, there are many legislative rules, and it’s difficult to learn and remember all of them. You may want to start by learning the basic principles behind legislative procedure. Knowing the principles may help you understand and remember the purposes behind the rules, even if you can’t remember each specific rule. The introduction to Mason’s Manual sets forth these ten principles for group decision making:

  1. The group must have the authority to take the action it is trying to take.
  2. The group must meet to take action.
  3. All members of the group must receive proper notice of the meeting.
  4. A quorum must be present at the meeting.
  5. There must be a question before the group that the group is authorized to decide.
  6. There must be opportunity to debate the question.
  7. The question must be decided by taking a vote.
  8. For an action to be taken or a question decided, there must be a majority vote of the group.
  9. There can be no fraud, trickery, or deception resulting in injury to any member.
  10. To be valid, an action or decision by the group must not violate any applicable law or constitutional provision.

When a question about legislative process arises during a committee hearing or a floor debate or during procedures in the House or the Senate, the presiding officer decides the question. In a committee of reference, the chairperson of the committee decides the question. In a second-reading floor debate while the House or the Senate is sitting as the Committee of the Whole, the person chairing the Committee of the Whole decides the question. In the other cases, the Speaker decides the question for the House and the President decides for the Senate. A legislator can appeal the ruling of the presiding officer, but in Colorado, an appeal is seen as calling for a vote of no confidence in the presiding officer and is very rarely raised.

As you strive to master the legislative rules, you will no doubt have several questions. Fortunately, there are several persons you may ask for interpretations and advice. The Speaker, the President, the Majority and Minority Leaders, and the Chief Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate are your most likely advisors. You should also consider talking with your committee chair, the Legislative Council staff, and the staff of the Office of Legislative Legal Services.

While knowing these basic principles is helpful, there’s no substitute for learning the rules. Remember: If you don’t know the rules, you can’t play the game.