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Previous Question

The Previous Question — sometimes referred to as a “PQ” — is a tool of the minority that affords the opportunity to offer an amendment to the Rule being considered on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The motion is used during the consideration of a matter to terminate debate, foreclose the offering of amendments, and to bring the House to an immediate vote on the main question.

In effect, it asks, “Are we ready to vote on the issue before us?”

If the previous question is defeated, control of debate shifts to the leading opposition member (usually the minority floor manager) who then manages an hour of debate and may offer a germane amendment to the pending business.

The effect of defeating the motion is to turn over control of the Floor to the minority or opposition.

Origin of the “Previous Question”

In the early Congresses, the previous question was used in the House for an entirely different purpose than it is today, having been modeled on the English parliamentary practice. As early as 1604, the previous question
had been used in the Parliament to suppress a question which the majority deemed undesirable for further discussion or action.

The Continental Congress adopted this device in 1778, but there was no intention of using it as a means of closing debate in order to bring the pending question to a vote.

As a result, debates from 1807 to 1811 were prolonged. Finally, in 1811, after an appeal had been taken from a ruling to the contrary by the Speaker, the House decided that there could be no debate after the previous question was ordered, and this decision was adhered to in subsequent rulings by the Speaker.

The previous question was incorporated into the House rules in 1840.

It is important to note that the “Previous Question” motion is distinct from a “cloture” motion used in the U.S. Senate. While both are tools to control debate, they differ in their procedural aspects and the context in which they are used.