Unanimous Consent Agreements in the Senate

Unanimous Consent Agreements
in the Senate
Walter J. Oleszek
Government and Finance Division
The Senate is fundamentally a “unanimous consent” institution. This means that the
rules and precedents of the Senate are set aside regularly by the unanimous consent of the
membership. Party leaders and other Senators propound unanimous consent requests
every day the Senate is in session. Without its tradition of unanimous consent, the Senate
would find it harder to process its complex workload. In a comment that is still relevant
today, a Senator pointed out during a September 25, 1990, discussion on the floor:
[T]he way the Senate conducts its business hour after hour, day after day, week after
week, year after year, is Senators voluntarily waive the rights which they possess
under the rules. I would guess in the course of a typical week we probably enter into
anywhere from 10 to 200 unanimous consent agreements, literally, where Senators by
unanimous consent, with 100 Senators agreeing to yield some right that they may have
— the right to debate, the right to do this, that or the other thing — waive their rights
so that the body may proceed in a way that seems expeditious.
It is worth distinguishing between simple unanimous consent requests and complex
unanimous consent agreements. Simple unanimous consent requests cover such routine
matters as dispensing with quorum calls, asking that certain staff aides have floor
privileges during consideration of a proposition, waiving the reading of amendments,
setting aside amendments, or inserting material in the Congressional Record.
Complex unanimous consent agreements (sometimes called “time limitation”
agreements or, informally, “u.c. agreements”) establish the procedural guidelines for
considering measures or matters on the floor. They are proposed orally on the floor, often
by the majority leader, and they often result from lengthy negotiations among numerous
Senators. They are printed in the Congressional Record, the daily Calendar of Business,
and the Journal of the Senate. The Senate often begins consideration of a measure
without such an agreement, but then adopts, piecemeal, agreements that are limited in
their procedural scope (restricting debate on amendments, for instance).
These tailor-made procedural agreements differ in content and coverage. For
example, some are more comprehensive than others in addressing procedural issues with
respect to floor action on a measure or matter. They may identify when a measure is to
be brought to the floor, set time limitations for debate on all amendments and motions,

structure the offering of amendments, waive points of order against the measure or
amendments thereto, or impose a requirement that all amendments be relevant to the
measure under consideration.
In sum, a complex unanimous consent agreement is akin to a negotiated “contract”
among all Senators, and it can only be changed by another unanimous consent agreement.
Whether comprehensive (covering floor consideration of an entire bill) or piecemeal,
these agreements both expedite floor decisionmaking and establish some predictability
in the processing of legislation and other matters. They are a form of “voluntary cloture,”
and their use facilitates the management of the Senate’s agenda and workload.
Purposes and Features of a Complex
Unanimous Consent (or “Time Limitation”) Agreement
Broad PurposesGeneral Features
—Impose time limits on debate—A negotiated “contract” accepted by
all Senators
—Expedite scheduling the Senate’s—Changed only by another
workloadunanimous consent agreement
—Establish predictability and permit—Comprehensive or partial in
flex ibility charact er
—Limits debate on measures and any
motions related thereto
—Structures the amendment process
—Requires the germaneness or
relevancy of amendments
—Waives points of order