Perhaps the most important process in the structure of the Senate is the unanimous consent agreement. Every action requested, simple or complex, on the Senate floor requires the approval of all members, with the objection of only one member derailing the whole process. This formula makes for a delicate procedure of negotiations and bargaining across party lines to achieve goals that encompass everything from passing bills to jockeying for floor time. The comparative small size and informal nature of the Senate lends itself well to the policy of unanimous consent because it is a process that allows the senate to function more efficiently and harmoniously.
In his book, Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process, Walter Oleszek describes the two different types of unanimous consent agreements (UCAs), as being either simple or complex. Simple agreements typically deal with routine business such as rescinding quorum calls, dispensing with readings and asking permission for other senators to speak. Since these are rather noncontroversial measures they almost always pass by without objection in the interest of courtesy and efficiency. In the video example below, Senator Begich of Alaska utilizes unanimous consent to perform a number of tasks.
(Accessed April 14, 2010)
He executes a “simple unanimous consent” by first rescinding the quorum call. He then goes on to pass motions dealing with the nomination of a new CIA director, two noncontroversial bills are passed by unanimous consent and he also sets the schedule for upcoming debates on the American Recovery Act. In this example, it is easy to see the multiple uses of unanimous consent and just how important of a tool it is in the function of the Senate. Had any other member reserved their right to object, it is possible that his agenda could have been derailed.
The process of unanimous consent is very fragile, with the ability of one objection to ruin a senator’s plans. For this reason, many complex UCAs, things such as bills, joint resolutions, amendments and nominations are attempted to be negotiated and worked out before being brought to the floor to insure there are no objections and also to save time. The agreement is passed around to all the senators using a system of telephone hotlines and should anyone of them object the motion is reworked until a new agreement can be reached. As Oleszek points out, the UCAs act as a form of “voluntary cloture” helping to put limits on an already clustered debate schedule in the Senate. This in turn, allows “individual senators to serve their own interests and make floor scheduling more predictable” (205). There are also some ethical norms that govern the creation of controversial UCAs as evidenced in the video example below.
(Accessed April 14, 2010)
In the video, because no member from the Republican Party was present, Senator Kerry had the opportunity to receive unanimous consent to move forward with the legislation. However, doing so would have violated the Senate norm and drawn him disrespect from his Republican colleagues. This is also a great example of the level of trust and respect exhibited by both sides when creating a unanimous consent agreement.
Not every unanimous consent agreement goes to the floor with all the details completely settled. Sometimes it is necessary to iron out these details in bits and pieces while on the floor. Some measures are taken to ensure the order of the business still runs smoothly without excessive debates or filibusters. These measures include placing restrictions on the number of amendments that may be added and also placing limits on debate time agreements. Actions may also be taken to insure that any potential amendments are relevant to the action that is being discussed. Oleszek sums it up rather well in saying, “UCAs underscore the Senate’s recognition that it needs to voluntarily impose additional rules on itself to expedite its business” (207).
Essential to the completion of unanimous consent agreements is the cooperation between majority and minority party leaders and other key Senators. These two leaders typically work in concert with one another to pinpoint areas of contention within the agreements, with the hope of crafting a more compromising, passable legislation. This cooperation however, does not come without a fair share of tactics and gamesmanship. For example, when he was Majority Leader, Bob Dole forced a controversial cloture vote by the means of a complicated unanimous consent agreement that linked the proposed bill together with another piece of legislation that was very popular and likely to pass. Because the UCA required both of the measures to invoke cloture he was able to pass the controversial bill. He was able to accomplish this all rather quickly because the UCA also called for a suspension of the upcoming Senate recess if a resolution was unable to be made. This is a good example of the craftiness sometimes employed by the party leaders to draft UCAs that help facilitate controversial legislation.
The unanimous consent is also sometimes used as a way of distributing partisan policies even in the face of direct objection. This is a ploy that allows the party being rejected a chance to show the public that they are trying to pass important legislation that is being blatantly disregarded by the opposition. The hope here is that the attempt will raise awareness and allow them to create an agreement in the future that is more to their liking. Watch here in the video example as the Majority Leader Bill Frist asks for unanimous consent for a controversial measure involving unborn children.
(Accessed April 15, 2010)
Frist had to have known the measure would be objected to, however his main goal was to make the point that the Republicans were not going to give up on the measure. Frist would later that day use the incident to call a press conference criticizing the Democrats for blocking their attempts, thus displaying the power that UCAs can have in potentially swaying public opinion (Oleszek, 211). This video is also an excellent example of the bargaining that goes on between party leaders when crafting unanimous consent agreements. In his objection, Senator Reid offers that in the coming days his party will work to create new amendments that should hopefully, be more favorable to the Republican’s position. In this exchange, the viewer gets a glimpse into the haggling and bargaining that often goes on behind the scenes in UCA negotiations. It is almost certain that without the cooperation between party leaders on unanimous consent agreements Senate proceedings would become stagnant.
In conclusion, unanimous consent agreements are crucial to Senate operations because they facilitate and expedite Senate business through a variety of means. UCAs create restrictions that allow for more cooperation across party lines by the way of an extensive negotiation process. Party leaders serve essential roles spearheading these negotiations working with the other side to create compromises when talks break down. The UCA functions as a mediating mechanism forcing the two sides to reach a common ground in order to perform important tasks. Simply put, if the United States Senate were a machine, the unanimous consent agreement would be the oil that allows it to run smoothly.
Oleszek, Walter J. Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process. 7thth ed. Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 2007.