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February 12, 2008: The Manual of the General Assembly

Yesterday, I made a passing reference and a brief digression regarding the Manual of the General Assembly.

This may seem like a mundane note; however, if you are going to San Jose in June as a commissioner or advisory delegate, you would be well served by spending a few hours looking through this document. These are the rules of the game.

Think about it this way: at the beginning of each Major League Baseball game, the managers bring out their lineups and have a conference at the plate with the umpires discussing the specific details of the park. What marks fair and foul, what is the line for a home run, and -- in Wrigley Field in Chicago -- what happens if the ball gets caught in the ivy on the outfield wall. The reason they have this conference is so that everyone is prepared.

Reading the rules for baseball or for the General Assembly is not exciting reading. It. Just. Is. Not. That said, download and read the Manual anyway.

For now, it is not important that you memorize what is in there. What is important is that you get familiar with figuring out where to find the things you will need. If you turn to the Contents page (page 5 of the Adobe Acrobat download, un-numbered in the actual printed document), you get an overview of the topics covered. You see the "what," "who," and then "how." Among the sections worthy of your perusal:

The Manual begins with the sources of business (which we began covering here and here with a look at the overtures). These are in Standing Rule A.

Second come the definitions of who is whom -- this is important as you try to figure out who can speak, who can vote. For example, advisory delegates have voice and vote rights in the committees, but voice only and NO voting rights on the plenary floor. These can be found in Standing Rule B.

Third begins the process. Of course, this includes a description of the structure (wow, this is exciting reading, isn't it?). That is Standing Rule C. Then, Standing Rules D, E, and F set out the beginning of the General Assembly Meeting, Committees, and Plenary processes.

Standing Rule H provides the steps for the election of the Moderator and the election of the Stated Clerk.

Standing Rule L talks about how to amend or suspend the Standing Rules.

When you are learning where things are, a general read is sufficient. You will get a handle on the terminology, on some of the players, and a feel for the movement.

Then, when you are trying to figure out how to do something and who can do it, you have to slow way down and read word-for-word, comma-for-comma, preposition-by-preposition, etc. The details make a difference. I will use the process for submitting a Commissioners' Resolution as the example here.

A commissioner resolution is one of the sources of business. Therefore, you know you are going to look in Standing Rule A.

Commissioners' Resolutions are described in Standing Rule A.8.

a. Any two commissioners may propose an item of new business, known as a commissioners’ resolution, for assembly consideration by delivering it in writing to the Stated Clerk or the Stated Clerk’s designee. No commissioner may sign more than two resolutions.

Thus, it takes two commissioners -- not a commissioner and an advisory delegate, not a commissioner and a committee resource person, not a commissioner and anyone else -- to propose a commissioners' resolution. Yes, two commissioners from the same presbytery can propose a commissioners' resolution. No, it does not have to be one minister commissioner and the other an elder commissioner. Note also that any one commission may sign up to two resolutions; more than that, and the resolutions will be disallowed.

b. The Stated Clerk shall determine and announce at the first meeting at which business is conducted the deadline for receipt of commissioners’ resolutions. The deadline shall not be earlier than twenty-four hours after the assembly has convened.

This is the deadline. The deadline for submission is usually exactly twenty-four hours after the Assembly convenes. If the General Assembly convenes at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday (as listed in the proposed docket), the deadline for commissioners' resolutions will be no earlier than (and probably no later than) 10:00 a.m. on Sunday.

Then, the restrictions and limitations:

d. Commissioners’ resolutions shall not contain business that requires an amendment to or
interpretation of the Constitution (see Book of Order, G-18.0301(a)).

e. The Stated Clerk shall not transmit as new business any resolution that deals with matters of business already before the General Assembly, nor transmit any resolution whose purpose can be achieved by the regular process of amendment and debate.

f. Should the commissioners’ resolution deal with substantially the same issue considered by one of the two previous sessions of the General Assembly, the Stated Clerk shall recommend that the Assembly Committee on Bills and Overtures take one of the following actions on the commissioners’ resolution: “refer to a subsequent assembly,” “decline for consideration,” or “take no action.”

For commissioners contemplating submitting an overture, these restrictions are important considerations. They are not merely guidelines; they are strictly enforced. For first time commissioners it can be disheartening to have their first attempt to do something get knocked out on procedural technicalities right at the beginning of the Assembly.

g. If the proposed resolution does deal with new business, the Stated Clerk shall transmit it to the Assembly Committee on Bills and Overtures with a recommendation for its referral.

That's good. That means that the commissioner resolution has met the requirements to be considered.

Think you are done? Not quite. Note this from the end of Standing Rule A.8.h:

If a commissioners’ resolution affects a substantial change in an existing social witness policy, the Stated Clerk should recommend to the Assembly Committee on Bills and Overtures that it be referred to the next General Assembly.

Uh-oh.

Even if the proposed commissioners resolution does not request a constitutional amendment, even if it deals with something not already before the assembly, even if it does not deal with substantially the same issue as the two previous assemblies; it can be knocked out by this provision. What amounts to a "substantial" change in social witness policy is a subjective determination -- and it means that it can be referred to a time when the commissioners who proposed the resolution are no longer members.

The point here: when you get to a place that you want to accomplish something at the General Assembly, you have to invest in a detailed reading of the Manual of the General Assembly. It is wise to do a quick read now so that you will know how to find what you will need later on.