Unanimous consent is a legislative procedure whereby a legislator requests approval by all legislators to approve rule changes and bills.
Unanimous consent 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 unanimous consent 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.
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 unanimous consent 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 unanimous consent. The party that holds the majority in the U.S. Senate often blocks high-profile bills from receiving unanimous consent. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R) blocked three bills offered by Senate Democrats to deal with 2020 election security. Sen. James Inhofe (R) prevented unanimous consent on a 2020 resolution using the “war crimes” label for military strikes on culturally significant locations.
Q13 Fox (February 24, 2020): “Last year, the Senate passed via unanimous consent the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, which made lynching a federal crime by establishing it as a civil rights violation.”
CNN (July 18, 2019): “Paul was not the only senator who objected to the attempt to pass the bill by unanimous consent on Wednesday. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah ‘alerted the cloakroom that he objected to the bill passing without a vote,’ Lee’s communications director Conn Carroll told CNN.”
The Hill (June 27, 2019): “More than two dozen GOP lawmakers on Thursday lined up on the House floor to call for a unanimous consent vote on the bipartisan Senate-passed bill to provide emergency humanitarian border aid.”