This motion was originally introduced in the House of Commons, in 1604, by Sir Harry Vane, and was designed to suppress questions which, if discussed, might involve in censure the government, or persons high in authority. It has been incorporated in the rules of the lower house of Congress, and in those of our State Legislatures, but in this country it is generally used for the purpose of winding up a long debate, or an unprofitable discussion. Some times, in the midst of high party excitement, it is applied in order to arrest the arguments of political opponents, and when so used it is not unfrequently termed the gag-law.
Formerly, in Congress, five members were sufficient to second the motion for the Previous Question, but now a majority of the members present is required. In our State Senate, four members are necessary; in the House of Representatives, twelve. Every Society should have the number determined, (which number will be greater or less according to the strength of the Society,) and inserted in the by-laws.*
When the Previous Question is moved and seconded by the requisite number, all further amendments, and all discussion are precluded at once. The President will rise and say, "The Previous Question has been moved and seconded - the question before the meeting is, 'Shall the main question be now put?'" And on this question it is usual to take the yeas and nays. If decided in the affirmative, the vote will then be taken on the amendments pending, in their order, and then on the main question.*
* In the absence of any by-law on the subject, one-fifth of the whole number of members present should be required to second the call. The names of those who call, and second the call for, the Previous Question, should be inserted in the minutes.
Formerly the rule in our Legislature was, that when the main question was ordered to be put, all pending amendments were cut off, and this is still the Parliamentary practice. The course now pursued, as laid down above, is a decided improvement over the old usage, and should certainly be adopted in Societies.
In the Legislature of New York, as well as in that of Massachusetts, the effect of a negative, is to leave the main question and the pending amendments, under debate, as they were before the Previous Question was moved.
On a motion for the Previous Question, no debate is allowable. All incidental questions of order, arising after the motion is made, must be decided without debate, whether on an appeal from the decision of the chair, or otherwise. The Previous Question having been moved and seconded, cannot be withdrawn, except by consent of the majority, nor can it be superseded by any other motion, excepting a motion to adjourn.
* What the "Main Question" will be, will depend upon circumstances. If a resolution be under debate, with amendments pending, the "main question" will be on the adoption of the resolution.
Motions to postpone are of two kinds - a motion to postpone for the present, and a motion to postpone indefinitely.
A motion to postpone "for the present," may be amended, by fixing a definite time, or it may be amended so as to read indefinitely. Where different times are named, the Legislative rule is to put the question on the most distant day first.
The motion to postpone indefinitely cannot be amended, nor superseded by a motion to commit, or to amend the original proposition, but must first be decided. If decided affirmatively, the proposition is finally disposed of; if negatively, the motion to commit, or to amend, may then be received.
In the Senate of the United States, when a question is postponed indefinitely, it cannot be acted upon again during the session. The usual effect of this motion, in all Legislative bodies, is to make a final disposition of the subject to which it is applied. The same proposition, however, is sometimes reintroduced in a different shape.