A motion to table is a procedural device that can be proposed in a meeting following the parliamentary procedure to “table” or retire the topic under discussion without further debate. Essentially, the motion defeats the topic under discussion, since it cannot be brought up again, and the motion itself is not open to debate. Some people feel that using this motion is a bit of a cheap trick used to deflect discussion about important issues, and that it is often unfair to the minority.
Many organizations that meet on a regular basis are governed by Robert's Rules of Order, a set of rules that are designed to improve the parliamentary decision-making process. Robert's Rules are intended to protect the minority from being quashed, while setting out clear rules for a variety of situations to ensure that groups such as legislatures and city councils can work smoothly and efficiently, and to create a standard system that is easy for everyone to use and understand. While motions to table are permitted under Robert's Rules, they must be used with care.
In a classic example, a group such as the United States Senate might be discussing a piece of legislation, and a member of the Senate would rise to propose a motion to table. If seconded, the motion would be put to the vote, and if a majority approved the motion, the matter would be dropped. The motion would also be recorded in the transcript of proceedings.
There are some legitimate reasons to put forth this motion. If another pressing matter emerged, for example, a legislative body might decide as a group to set a previous discussion aside in interest of addressing the more immediate issue. This would be especially true in a situation where the new situation might potentially have an impact on the topic currently under discussion. It might also be used in an attempt to finish a meeting by a reasonable time.
In a situation where a motion to table is being used with the intent of suppressing the minority, it is generally deemed “out of order.” As a general rule, it is better to move to postpone something indefinitely rather than to table it. In contrast to this motion, a move to postpone indefinitely would also set the matter aside, but only temporarily. If people later wanted to revive the discussion, they could do so with ease.