Friday, 30 October 2009


In both the Westminster Parliament and the US Congress (and all legislative bodies) - time matters! Time is required for legislative proposals to be discussed and developed. Holding to account those who exercise power requires time for questions to be put and answered. If matters of concern to the nation and pressing issues affecting citizens are to be discussed then time is needed. For this reason the allocation of time is one of the most hotly contested issues in both legislatures.

In the House of Commons Standing Order 14 (full S.O.s here) Government business has precedence at all time, save for the exceptions set out. (Opposition Days; Private Members' Time). The use of Programme Motions (SOs 83A-I) gives great power to the Government to get its business through.

The allocation of time in the House of Lords is negotiated through the "usual channels" (usually the party whips, but the term can have a wider meaning which includes other leadership posts and representatives of the Crossbenchers). Peer pressure (pun intended) generally keeps business ticking over (and restrain those who would talk too much) - though carefully laid plans can be easily derailed.

The majority in the House of Representatives enjoys considerable advantages in controlling time and the flow of business. The Rules Committee - which can issue "Special Rules" allocating and restricting time (and potential amendments) on particular bills and resolutions - plays a key role.

In the Senate the majority has a harder time controlling the flow of business. While the "cloture" rule (only introduced in 1917) can defeat a filibuster - the need for 60 votes, plus the time for the cloture procedure to run its course gives a headache for the Majority Leader (or any Senator seeking to get legislation passed).

In all Houses methods have been developed which minorities can use to 'hijack' time or slow down the majority. These range from the filibuster to "points of order". Each House has its own procedures and practices both to slow (and even stop) business and to get business through. Some of these will be considered in future Washminster posts.