Rules are made to be broken, unless of course, one is a parliamentarian, in which case rules are binding as scripture, and a means of exacting order from a chaotic world of PTA meetings, psychologists' conventions or any other gathering of fractious humankind.
It is not an easy calling, as the 90-plus local parliamentarians gathered this weekend at the regional meeting of the National Association of Parliamentarians can attest. Not the least of one's problems is convincing a nation of infidels that a well-thumbed copy of Robert's Rules of Order streamlines a meeting instead of slowing it down.
"Oh, yes, people think we're too fussy, but without rules, why, we would have chaos," says association president Henrietta Marjan, whose motto is "Let All Things Be Done Decently and in Order."
"It's amazing, but some people don't see the need for rules," agrees parliamentarian Phyllis Roberts of Fairfax. "We get a lot of calls from clubs for help with procedure, and we ask what are the club's bylaws, and they don't even know where the bylaws are, much less what they are." It's enough to make a parliamentarian pall.
Did you hear the one about the parliamentarian who was hired to keep a convention in order only to be seated behind a potted plant and spend the whole convention batting palm fronds from her eyes? The parliamentarians did. What about the convention officer who pounded her gavel so hard the podium crashed to the floor? And the disgruntled conventioneer who, when parliamentary procedure failed, moved a large piece of electrical equipment in front of the delegates he was trying to ignore?
There are about 800 professional parliamentarians nationwide, and at least several thousand more who are studying, i.e. reading the 500-plus pages of Robert's Rules of Order as preparation for a grueling examination. From then on, part-time or full-time, earning as much as $300 a day, parliamentarians are the voice of wisdom at any convention where they advise the presiding officer on how a meeting should be conducted. The quiet voice of wisdom, that is. "Remember," president Marjan admonishes her colleagues, "a good parliamentarian makes the convention's presiding officer look good."
In fact, a good parliamentarian can do much more than make a presiding officer look good. A parliamentarian can tell you how to write your convention rules so your ideological enemies only get two minutes to speak; or how to write the credentials rules so the enemy doesn't get to vote at all. "If you have the rules, you have the way," says Virginia Schlotzhauer. "It's all strategy. It's all in the book."
"Robert's is like the Bible sometimes," says Phyllis Roberts. "I'll go to look one thing up and two hours later I'll still be at it, going from passage to passage."
Robert's Rules were originally set forth in brief in 1876 as the "Pocket Manuel of Rules of Order" by Henry Martyn Robert, a retired U.S. Army general, who found meetings that he attended horribly disorganized. His pamphlet was expanded and, in the early 1930s the National Association of Parliamentarians was formed. The rest is rulemaking history.
Did you hear the definition of a perfect three-man committee? The first member is too lazy to attend meetings, the second one is too ill, and the third . . . Never mind, the parliamentarians loved it. Along with the cartoons of bejeweled and befuddled clubwomen thrashing the life out of Robert's Rules, making motions to adjourn for sherry, and so on.
Parliamentarians aren't always women, of course, but the majority in the National Association of Parliamentarians is. Women who've arrived fresh from the nation's network of women's clubs -- American Association of University Women, the Greater Federation of Women's Clubs, the National Council of Negro Women.
"Women just like rules, they're brought up to be careful about etiquette and convention," explains Roberts. "Women were 100 years behind men in having clubs, too, so when they finally got them I think there was a sense of wanting to do things right."
At the parliamentarians convention there's also a sense that sometimes things can be too orderly, such as when the seminar of helpful hints includes such tips as "a pencil and paper should be included in your briefcase."
But more time is spent on practicing with questions like, "What vote is required for adoption of a motion of consideration by paragraph or seriatum?" The answer is a majority vote. A registered parliamentarian has to know that almost before the question is finished. Fortunately, many parliamentary problems are less arcane.
"The most common problem at any convention," says John D. Stackpole, a District Heights meteorologist who became a parliamentarian after his PTA elected him president in his absence, "is a presiding officer who doesn't know enough to keep his mouth shut."