This post is a rerun of something I wrote quite some time ago on a different blog. But I get asked about it so often that I thought it was worth running again here. Here’s the question:
If the Senate has unlimited debate, how come they just said that there would be 4 hours of debate on bill X?
The answer is that the Senate has adopted temporary rules by unanimous consent. That is, every single Senator — even those that might oppose the legislation in question — has agreed to give up some of their individual rights (namely the right to unlimited debate) during the consideration of the bill.
This, of course, raises some questions:
1) Why adopt temporary rules to consider a bill?
2) How does unanimous consent work?
3) Can you reneg on your consent after you give it?
4) Why would a Senator opposed to a bill ever grant his consent to limit debate?
We can take these one at a time.
Why adopt temporary rules to consider a bill?
Mainly because the standing rules of the Senate — the rules that would be in force without a unanimous consent agreement for temporary rules — are an extraordinarily difficult means by which to pass a bill. The following are two key features of the standing rules in this regard:
1) Unlimited debate. It is well-known that under normal Senate rules, debate on certain motions cannot be stopped against the will of a Senator without a supermajority for cloture.
2) No restrictions on germaneness of amendments. The normal Senate rules (unlike the House) allow a Senator, in most situations, to offer an amendment on any topic at any time. This can often lead to debate on a bill ceasing to be about the bill itself; instead, the entire debate shifts to debate over an amendment. The minority is quick to take advantage of this — the democrats were famous for offering minimum-wage amendments to everything under the sun in the late 90’s Republican-controlled Senate.
These two features — unlimited debate and no restrictions on amendment germaneness — form the essential conditions under which bills are debated in the Senate under the standing rules. When combined with the a third pillar of reality in the Senate — the general scarcity of floor time available during a session of Congress — it becomes imperative that the majority leadership finds ways to consider bills under conditions that limit debate and amendments.*** They do this by reaching unanimous consent agreements among all Senators.
How does unanimous consent work?
Fundamentally, it works on the principle that “if no one objects, then there cannot be a violation of Senate rules.” Parliamentary procedure in most legislatures requires that formal objections be lodged against rules violations. Absent such objections, it is not the job of the chair to enforce the rules. Thus, at any time, the person controlling the floor may ask for unanimous consent to do something that they otherwise could not do under the written standing rules.
This happens dozens of times a day on a casual basis; the Senate simply could not be run with any efficiency under the existing rules. So Senators will often be heard saying, “I ask unanimous consent to dispense with the reading of the journal” or “I ask unanimous consent to dispense with the current quorum call” or “I ask unanimous consent to skip the reading of the amendment.” All of these are things that could not be done if even a single Senator objected. And they are all things that would take a significant amount of time if they had to be done as stated in the rules. So instead, by unanimous consent, they are waved. And things proceed quickly.
Any Senator who wants to play hardball can go sit in their desk all day and just object to all verbal unanimous consent requests. It would bring the Senate to a grinding halt (although it wouldn’t win the Senator many friends or future allies). This has happened on occasion. Senator Metzenbaum used the tactic in the 1970s on several occasions, and quickly was mollified by the leadership.
Unanimous consent agreements for the consideration of a bill are slightly different. Often called “time agreements,” they will often be printed and placed in the Congressional Record. They might cover all aspects of debate on a bill, specifying the amount of time for debate, what amendments are allowed, the amount of time for debate on each amendment, and a specific time at which a final vote will be taken. Or they may only specify one of those things. They may be done piecemeal as events develop during a floor debate. You may see quorum call after quorum call occur during a floor debate as leaders attempt to hammer out a time agreement. It is entirely based on what the leadership can arrange with both the rank and file of their party and the minority. Here’s an example of a full agreement:
Ordered, That when the Senate proceeds to the consideration of bill X, , debate on any amendment in the first degree shall be limited to 1 hour, to be equally divided and controlled by the mover of such and the manager of the bill, and debate on any amendment in the second degree, debatable motion, appeal, or point of order which is submitted or on which the Chair entertains debate shall be limited to 30 minutes, to be equally divided and controlled by the mover of such and the manager of the bill:
Provided, That in the event the manager of the bill is in favor of any such amendment or motion, the time in opposition thereto shall be controlled by the Minority Leader or his designee;
Provided Further, That no amendment that is not germane to the provisions of the said bill shall be received.
Ordered Further, That on the question of final passage of the said bill, debate shall be limited to 6 hours, to be equally divided and controlled by the Majority Leader and the Minority Leader, or their designees: Provided, That the said Senators, or either of them, may, from the time under their control on the passage of the said bill, allot additional time to any Senator during the consideration of any amendment, debatable motion, appeal, or point of order.
A UC agreement might even specify that 60 votes are required for passage of the bill — this is a way to avoid a filibuster and cloture vote without having to actually go through the time consuming process of cloture. Similarly, even when the Senate is seeking cloture on a bill, consent agreements are usually reached on things like the timing of the cloture vote (which by the rules can only be taken at specific times).
Unanimous consent agreements are usually worked out informally. Obviously, if any Senator objects, they fall apart. So it is incumbent on the leadership to accommodate all Senators in the process.
Can you reneg on your consent after you give it?
No. Once an agreement is reached, the only way to overturn it is by a subsequent unanimous consent agreement. So not only can 1 Senator not back out of a unanimous consent agreement that has been reached on the floor, but 99 Senators cannot back out of an agreement if there is 1 Senator who objects to changing it.
Why would a Senator opposed to a bill ever grant his consent to limit debate?
Because it allows them leverage over the issue at hand as well as other issues. There are many, many bills that the leadership would like to pass, but can only afford to bring up if they know they won’t have to spend weeks on it and fight through a cloture vote. Therefore, it is in leadership’s interest to modify and compromise with both their own rank and file and the minority party. This generally takes two forms: individual Senators can get concession on the contents of the bill at hand, either by consenting only to the consideration of a substitute compromise bill or requiring specific amendments be allowed or not allowed; similarly, Senators can gain favor on other bills that they are interested in — basically a logroll in which they allow the leaderships bill to come up under unanimous consent in exchange for either concessions on another bill or promises to bring their bill up on the floor.
If you think about this for a few minutes, you begin to realize (a) how important informal negotiation is in the Senate, (b) how much leverage individual Senators have, and (c) how powerful the leadership’s incentive is to try compromise instead of filibuster-breaking. When any individual Senator can derail the entire chamber by objecting to unanimous consent requests for things like the reading of bills and the ending of quorum calls, or more likely just objecting to time agreements, it becomes paramount for the leadership not to ram things through when playing nice is at all possible. Of course, there are limitations to individual power: Senators who continually object to agreements (or sit on the floor and object to trivial things, as mentioned above) can be frozen out politically and legislatively, which tends to keep people largely in line.
**One might ask: why not just change the Senate standing rules? Two quick answers: first, it takes a super-supermajority (2/3 of all Senators) to get cloture on a debate to change the rules. Second, individual Senators perceive the current arrangement of the rules as beneficial, since the unanimous consent system gives them leverage over all bills, and particularly over all bills that are important to them. There’s no doubt that the majority leadership would love to change the rules while they are the majority. But the can’t, because of the supermajority requirement, and they are wary of it because they might someday not be in the majority.