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Unanimous Consent

Unanimous consent is a legislative procedure whereby a legislator requests approval by all legislators to approve rule changes and bills.

The rules have been used in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate since their first meetings in 1789. A representative or senator requests unanimous consent from the presiding legislator to bypass quorum calls, approve routine bills, and activate unanimous consent agreements.

Any legislator can object to this request in order to trigger debate prior to further consideration. The presiding officer waits for objections and approves passage if there is consent by all members.

Behind the scenes, legislators of both parties can create unanimous consent agreements that dictate proceedings. This agreement typically requires legislators to provide consent on time limits, rules, and other structural concerns so that substantive business can take place.

The U.S. House of Representatives has standing rules that allow the procedure to speed debate of floor measures. The chamber’s size makes it necessary to achieve consent from all present members to avoid legislative logjams.

Members can ask for unanimous consent to suspend the rules, which means that floor debate is limited to 40 minutes prior to a vote.

Origin of “Unanimous Consent”

The first unanimous consent agreement in the U.S. Senate is attributed to William Allen of Ohio. In 1846, Allen and other senators approved an agreement to allow debate on the addition of the Territory of Oregon. This one-off agreement turned into a regular practice of the U.S. Senate despite concerns by senators of stifling debate.

Informal agreements evolved into a standard procedure in 1914 that can only be altered by new agreements addressing immediate concerns. The practice of invoking cloture to end Senate debate was created in 1917 as the body created more formal mechanisms for managing floor proceedings.

Politifact found that 206 of 254 substantive measures considered by the U.S. Senate during the 110th Congress were approved by the procedure. The party that holds the majority in the U.S. Senate often blocks high-profile bills from using the procedure. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R) blocked three bills offered by Senate Democrats to deal with 2020 election security. Sen. James Inhofe (R) prevented it on a 2020 resolution using the “war crimes” label for military strikes on culturally significant locations.

Use of “Unanimous Consent” in a sentence

  • The Senate often relies on unanimous consent to expedite proceedings, but a single senator can bring the process to a halt by objecting.
  • When it comes to non-controversial bills or resolutions, seeking unanimous consent is a common practice, allowing for swift passage without the need for extensive debate or amendments.
  • The use of unanimous consent in the House of Representatives is more restricted compared to the Senate, but it’s essential for fast-tracking certain kinds of legislation, particularly those that have wide bipartisan support.