Tuesday, June 20, 2017

“I ask unanimous consent…”

With the Senate crafting, discussing, and debating its version of the House’s American Health Care Act, there has been a great deal of reporting about how the Senate works (or doesn’t). Many Senators from both parties are frustrated with the “behind closed doors” process for drafting legislation, and Democrats in particular are responding with tactics designed to slow down the consideration of the bill. One prominent approach is to object to all (or nearly all) of what are known as “unanimous consent agreements.”

What does this mean? Believe it or not, the Senate considers most legislation by unanimous consent, meaning that every Senator agrees not to slow down the discussion on whatever question the Senate as a whole is considering—from a vote on a piece of legislation, to the debate time allowed for a bill, to the time the Senate will meet the next day. In short, when a Senator says “I ask unanimous consent that. . .,” he or she is asking everyone to agree not to engage in long discussions or even to filibuster. They do this because normal Senate rules allow for extensive debates—sometimes seemingly forever. It helps the Senate get more work done.

That all changes whenever a Senator says “I Object!” to a proposed agreement. He or she can force the Senate to operate under the normal procedures. Imagine, for example, ongoing objections to unanimous consent agreements on everything from convening the next day at noon, to renaming a Post Office. Every one of those questions becomes eligible for thirty hours or more of debate. That’s why Democrats, who are eager to prevent the AHCA bill from coming to the floor, are using this strategy. They can tie up the Senate for days or weeks.

All of this is in keeping with the adage that the United States Senate is the “saucer that cools the tea” (or coffee, depending on your preference). It is designed for more thorough and sometimes ponderous discussions. As the Senate moves towards upcoming votes on health care legislation, look to see who is objecting to these Unanimous Consent Agreements and see how the normal functioning of the chamber might be slowed and altered.

-- By Jared Payne, Advocacy Associates

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