Why is the Constitution so important in the legislative process?
Volume 14, Issue 1
By Robert McConnell Productions
In 1995, Robert McConnell Productions began its first issue of the Parliamentary Internet Newsletter. The purpose of this publication has been to explore in depth major issues that arise out of organizational government. Over the years we have taken up such issues as the impeachment of President Clinton and the election fiasco of 2000 when no one was sure whether Candidate Gore or Candidate Bush won the election. We are non- partisan and non-political. We are interested in such national issues as they affect, or have bearing on, the democratic process in organizations. In this issue of the newsletter we will take up a topic that will come up in the 112th Congress. It will be presented in the same spirit as previous issues.
A blog impels our topic
Because we are interested in Robert’s Rules, we read many blogs that mention this book. A blog came to our attention stating that the new Republicans in Congress want to read the constitution out loud on the second day of the 112th Congress and to ensure that “every bill introduced include a clause citing its constitutional authority.” The blog presented this information in a satirical manner that it made one question the sanity of those proposing such a thing. So is it outlandish and perhaps naïve to require legislation to conform to the US Constitution?
What does Robert’s Rules say?
We must understand a basic principle that underlies all government. It is this: “That constitutions and bylaws are created to give governments and organizations restrictions within which they can govern themselves.” If this were not so, why go to the trouble to create such documents? The reason we have a constitution or bylaws is to limit the power of both those who govern and those who are governed.
The second basic principle under Robert’s Rules is that the purpose stated in a constitution or bylaws establishes the limits for which an organization can propose business. The purpose tells members what the organization was created to do. For example, if an organization is created to help stray animals, those joining know that is its purpose and it is not to help homeless people. If a person wants to help homeless then he needs to go somewhere else. It would also be out of order for such a person to make motions about helping homeless people in an organization formed to help stray animals. The Constitution or bylaws now become a protection to its members from those who might want to highjack an organization and turn it into something it is not.
The third basic principle is that if a motion is made that conflicts with the constitution or bylaws (and not just its purpose, but other provisions) is out of order. “No motion is in order that conflicts with federal, state, or local law; with the rules of a parent organization; or with the organization’s constitution or bylaws or other rules of the organization. Even if a unanimous vote adopts the motion, it is null and void if it conflicts with the previously mentioned rules.”For example, we received a call where at a meeting the members voted to set the salary for a certain position. But in reviewing the bylaws, it was discovered that only the board of directors had the authority to set salary for this position. Therefore, the motion was null and void and would not be carried out. If the members wanted to set the salary, they would have to amend the bylaws to do that.
Reading the Constitution at a meeting
Let’s take up the question of reading the US Constitution at the second meeting of Congress. Here is a question for the reader. How many members of organizations have actually read the bylaws? And if they have read them, how many are actually familiar with them to know if a motion at a meeting is in order or not? And, how many actually bring them to meetings?
So if members, including officers, aren’t reading the bylaws, or referring to them during business meetings, how can they effectively govern themselves according to their own governing documents? This is why so many organizations are in trouble and are divided. Perhaps if members, officers and directors would take the time to read their bylaws out loud at a meeting, and understand what the bylaws require, more members would be working together instead of against each other.
There are organizations actually doing this and finding it effective in self-governance. A recent volume of Imprimis magazine published by Hillsdale College had this to say about how its Board of Trustees operates: “Just yesterday we had a meeting of our Board of Trustees, and we began the meeting, as we begin every meeting, by reading from the College’s Articles of Association.”So if a Board of Trustees of a small liberal arts college can find this a good practice, could other organizations find it helpful, too? Could our US Congress find it a valuable practice?
By keeping governing documents at the very foundation of business, what does this do? It keeps everyone focused on the work that should be done and what should not be done. If our Congress faithfully did this, might things be different?
Citing of Bills to their constitutional authority
It is the duty of every presiding officer to know if a motion is in accordance with the constitution and other rules of an organization. (It is important for members to know this, too.) When the president knows this, it saves time and keeps emotions in check. I was presiding at a board meeting where some business carried over from the previous board to the new board. Several new members did not like what the previous board had done, and that this new board had to finish what it started. The issue had to do with a bylaw requirement to contact members who had been absent for at least a year. The bylaw required that the board send out a letter of inquiry and if the member did not return an answer, there were other steps to be taken which included removal from membership. One of the new board members did not want to continue the process and made a motion to stop the process. As president, I had to rule that motion out of order because the bylaws required the board to continue this process. If a president did not know or perhaps was persuaded not to continue because members’ feeling would be hurt, what would that do to the integrity of the bylaws? Basically a few board members would have amended them without going through the process or made the bylaws null and void to allow a motion to take precedence. Where is the democracy in this?
When we elect people to serve in office or in Congress, is it naïve or ridiculous to expect them to uphold the Constitution or bylaws of the organization? Although our US Constitution is over 200 years old, the Founding Fathers included both the checks and balances and the limitations on power that has kept our country safe from tyranny. Its simple principles have not failed us yet, nor will they ever fail us, because they are based on the ideal of self-government, which is never out-of-date for freedom loving people.