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Wonkology: Unanimous Consent

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July 9, 2019

A parliamentary tool that allows for the expedited passage of legislation by common agreement.

Point Break

Article I of the Constitution established the legislative branch but largely left the execution of procedures and rules to each chamber. To help ameliorate legislative log jams, both chambers use a process called "unanimous consent" to speed passage of legislation. Unanimous consent is utilized by asking for agreement of all members present to proceed with a certain action. If any member of a chamber objects at that time, then the unanimous consent request cannot proceed.

Dazed and Confused

The standing rules of the Senate grant individual Senators more say in the legislative process than members of the House under their rules. Accordingly, pre-negotiated Senate agreements are extremely important when advancing legislation (i.e., limiting debate and amendments). Before requesting a unanimous consent agreement, leaders typically consult with their party caucuses to ensure that there are no objections. A Senator in opposition to the motion may state that she "reserves the right to object," which grants the Senator time to speak about her disagreement before formally objecting. If consent becomes elusive, the Senate majority leadership can switch tactics and call for cloture.

The House also uses unanimous consent agreements - only less frequently - because most House floor business has been highly choreographed in advance by the House Rules Committee.

The first official use of unanimous consent was in 1846 to end nearly five months of debate on the Oregon Treaty to resolve a boundary dispute with the United Kingdom. Since the 1950s when then-Senator Lyndon Johnson served as Majority Leader, the Senate has come to rely on unanimous consent agreements to govern many aspects of Senate floor proceedings.

Caddyshack

Since the 1950s, the use of unanimous consent in the Senate has remained high. For example, between 2007 and 2008, the Senate passed 911 pieces of legislation, and 855 of those bills cleared by unanimous consent. As a reflection of the actual pace of legislating in Washington, however, only 376 of those measures were legally binding bills or joint resolutions.

At the end of May 2019, the House attempted to pass a Senate-approved disaster relief bill using unanimous consent. Three Republicans objected, thus stalling the passage of the $19 billion measure. Upon returning from Memorial Day recess, the House passed the bill overwhelmingly by a roll call vote of 354-58.