Blog of Rights

Congress-ese: Unanimous Consent — The Golden Child of the Legislative Process

By Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 12:45pm

Our word today is Unanimous Consent. You can basically think of it like this — if parliamentary tactics somehow formed a family (cute, huh?) and the filibuster (which we'll explain tomorrow) was the black sheep (aww…poor little fella), unanimous consent would be the favorite child (you know the type).

Unanimous consent is a device used to expedite the legislative process through the mutual agreement of all representatives or senators. Proceedings in the House of Representatives or the Senate and action on legislation (including passage) often take place upon the “unanimous consent” of the members of the respective chamber.

Believe it or not, Congress considers a lot of bills during a congressional session (granted, a fair amount aren’t worth their weight in salt) and if it had to spend untold hours every day on debating and voting on the naming of naming post offices, well, nothing would ever get done. Unanimous consent allows for a fast-tracking of the tedious and time-consuming aspects of the legislative process. The key to unanimous consent is that it can only be used when all members agree. If even one member objects, that’s it. Deal off! Capiche?

Just like any other parliamentary device, unanimous consent can be used for both good and…well how about an example? Late last year, the Senate passed S. 456, the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act by unanimous consent. The ACLU had a lot of problems with this punitive-heavy legislation, not the least of which was the fact that it contained provisions to further provide for juveniles to receive sentences of life without the possibility of parole. Fortunately, it has not advanced in the House of Representatives.

While unanimous consent certainly is convenient in that it allows the process to proceed in a much timelier, expedited manner, you have to keep your eyes peeled for the occasional unwelcome surprise.

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