His name was probably Mr. Robert, since they're called Robert's Rules of Order. But the man who first crafted the parliamentary guidelines that have become a way of life for most democratic assemblies also had a lot of Miss Manners in him.
Every move that is made on the floor of the House or Senate, every word that is spoken, is locked into Mr. Robert's polite parliamentary cadence. The end result is that legislators onthe floor of the two chambers spend a lot of time saying thaings they don't mean.
And, thanks largely to Mr. Robert, they don't speak normal English when they're saying these things they don't mean. They speak a flowery, 19th-Century version of the language, full of verbal curtises and bowa. For the sake of this column, I'll call the language Robertspeak.
Robertspeak apparently evolved partially as a result of the more rambunctius early days of American democracy, when parliamentary debate sometimes degenerated into name-calling and fistfights. Presumably the logic was that if a legislator couldn't really say what he meant, another legislator would have a hard time taking offense.
Also, Robertspeak makes name-calling almost impossible - or at least difficult - since nobody on the floor of the legislature can call a colleague by name, without a special dispensation from the presiding officer.
This can be a little disconcerting at times. A pleasant, frowsy lawyer from Rockville, whom everybody calls "Bobs," steps onto the floor of the House of Delegates and instantly becomes "the delegate from Montgomery County."
Unless somebody's mad at him, of course. In that case he becomes, "the esteemed delegate from Montgomery COunty."
Now. if you are not the House floor and what to ask the delegate from Montgomery County a question - or interrupt him to make a point - you have to use the presiding officer, the Speaker as a go-between. Presumably this is a further effort to protect the legislators from each other.
Thus, where you might say "Hey, Bob," if you met him on the street, you say instead, "Mr. Speaker, will the delegate from Montgomery County please yield?"
Depending on the tone of voice with which this line is delivered, and the mood of the debate at the moment, the word, "yield," can be roughly translated here as:
"Listen to me."
"Answer my question."
"Explain what the heck is doing on here."
Or, "Shut up."
Another cardinal rule here is that you are to speak about whatever bill is up for debate at the moment - or, in some cases, about what somebody has suggested be done with the bill. These suggestions are called "motions." If a legislator starts to speak about something other than the bill or the motion, he runs the risk of being told, "The delegate (or senator) is out of order."
This means, roughly, "Sit down and shut up."
The only times when a legislator can get around this rule is when he or she asks a special dispensation of the Speaker or the President. That dispensation is called "personal privilege." It is most often invoked when the legislator in question wants to castigate somebody in the press who has written or broadcast something the legislator didn't like.
For short-hand purposes, though, the phrase "I request permission to speak on a point of personal privilege" is roughly equivalent to, "I'm ticked off and I want to tell you all why."
Aside from trying to keep a high tone to the parliamentary proceedings, Robertspeak also serves another purpose. It speeds things up. There are times when Robertspeak is designed to soften what's being said; there are other times when Robertspeak is designed solely to be ignored.
There is more to all of this than the language, though. There are a few other quirks of legislative practice that need expalning, quirks devised by some parliamentary Pavlov.
Take the quorum call, for instance. On the books, the quorum call is a device to make sure that enough legislators are on the floor to make a decision. In reality, However, the quorum call - accompanied as it is by a resounding clanging of bells - has the same effect is to tell people, "Wake up, we're about to do something important."
Or, more to the point, "Get yourselves out of the lounge and the coffee shop and get back in here."
But not all the preliminary doubletalk is designed to soften unpleasant messages. Sometimes what they mean is really much more pleasnt than what they say.
Like, for instance, when Roy Staten, the Senate majority Leader, gets to his feet at the end of a long night session and says to the Senate President, "Move you, Sir, the Senateof Maryland stand adjourned until 10 a.m. tomorrow."
Put a little more bluntly, this means, "Let's get out of here ans head for the watering holes.