The frequent use of “unanimous consent” in the Senate is a little-known fact about the upper chamber. It has resulted in a practice of “secret spending” — passing important and expensive bills without debate or even a recorded vote. Over the past 22 years, 93 percent of approved measures did not even receive roll-call votes.
Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have tried to change that. They introduced a measure that prohibited passage of legislation by unanimous consent without first making it available online for at least 72 hours. Yet when Senate Democrats offer their rules changes this week, the Coburn-McCaskill proposal won’t be among them.
Unanimous consent is a procedural device used to speed up the legislative process — as long as no senator objects. In practice, the Senate arrives at unanimous consent not by debate or by thoughtful consideration of bills, but by the Senate “hotline,” an informal telephoned request asking senators to allow measures to be approved by the Senate without debate or amendment.
Senators who object are to notify the majority leader, thereby placing a “hold” on the measure. When senators aren’t in the office to object, they agree to the approval by default. In other words, unanimous consent refers not to explicit approval of all senators but to a lack of objections.
In some cases, that is as it should be. Many of the measures the Senate passes wouldn’t merit an objection. They’re often symbolic gestures.
But occasionally, important bills squirm through, sometimes because senators have already headed home and can’t object. In a span of three days in March, Senate leaders “hotlined” bills that would have cost more than $14 billion. The measure introduced by Coburn and McCaskill would require hotline notifications to be available on a public website for at least 72 hours before a bill or joint resolution could be passed without a vote.
Democrats have sought to eliminate “secret holds” as part of their larger assault on the filibuster. Yet they haven’t addressed the hotlining process that necessitates holds in the first place.
Coburn put it this way: “There has been much debate over the past year regarding ‘secret holds’ stalling the consideration of presidential appointments or slowing expedited passage of legislation by the Senate. Lost in this discussion has been an issue that should be a far greater concern for taxpayers — ‘secret spending.’”
Now, more than ever, as Senate Democrats prepare to rewrite the Senate rules, it’s time the issue receives the attention it deserves.
Tina Korbe is a staff writer in the Center for Media and Public Policy, an investigative journalism unit at the Heritage Foundation.