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I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the interest I’ve had from people on parliamentary procedure. It fits this blog in the sense that we seek to foster effective communication, and when it’s used correctly (instead of just as a technicality), parliamentary procedure can help that along. As those who get it will see, in my upcoming ebook I point out that parliamentary procedure is simply a practical way of balancing two opposing needs every decision-making group has: the need for everyone who has something to contribute to be heard, and the need to expedite business.

We’re not going to turn this blog into one dedicated to parliamentary procedure, but in the interests of making the meetings you must attend work more effectively, we will occasionally have a communication-focused post about it. Here’s one now!

It’s in the news! Sort of.

The term “unanimous consent” made the news the last few days. NPR reported on How Congress Quietly Overhauled Its Insider-Trading Law. Although the House of Representatives technically has a quorum of 218 when there are no vacancies of membership, in practice a lot of legislation gets passed without a quorum. It won’t become an issue unless there is a vote before the House, a member raises a point of order, and the speaker agrees that a quorum is not present.

That’s why the quiet change in the STOCK act went almost unnoticed, even though hardly any congressional representatives were on the floor.

Legislatures get away with such shenanigans mainly because the general population doesn’t know what procedures they are supposed to be following, much less whether they are actually following them.

Nevertheless, unanimous consent is an entirely legitimate part of parliamentary procedure, intended for use with routine, non-controversial motions.

Today, for instance, I believe the use of unanimous consent in my college’s Faculty Senate probably saved at least a half hour out of what could have otherwise been a two-hour meeting. However, I heard some concern from some members about its use, since it smacked slightly of railroading, and it can leave that impression (especially in light of Congressional practice). So let’s look briefly at what it is and how to use it.

What is this “without objection” stuff?

They key phrase you’ll hear in conjunction with unanimous consent (which used to be called “general consent”) is: “without objection.”

(Note: the following is a condensed adaptation from the upcoming ebook.)

Let’s say that the entertainment committee has given a report about a new barbecue place that is willing to cater the next meeting for free. The chair of the entertainment committee concludes by saying, “On behalf of the committee, I move that we invite Billy Bob’s Pig Fest to bring barbecue to our next meeting.”

The chair, sensing this is not going to be controversial, can simply say, “If there is no objection, we will invite Billy Bob’s Pig Fest to bring barbecue to our next meeting.”

Pause, pause, pause.

“Without objection, the motion is adopted.”

There are some keys to making this work.

The chair must genuinely pause. If there is a single objection the chair must move into formal procedure. The objection does not mean the objector is against the motion; just that the objector wants to hear discussion.

One member today feared a chilling effect, i.e., that someone might feel social pressure not to object, a fear eased when he learned the objection would not be to the motion, but to passing the motion without discussion. We just need to explain that.

Unanimous consent doesn’t mean every member favors the motion; it may only mean the opposition realizes it doesn’t have the votes to counter it, and lets it go without objection just to save time and energy.

Do you think understanding little helpful things like this might help your decision-making groups to function more effectively?

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