Tuesday, November 29, 2011

House and Senate Passage of Noncontroversial Legislation: Suspension of Rules & Unanimous Consent

House and Senate Passage of Noncontroversial Legislation:
Suspension of Rules & Unanimous Consent
            News and media paint a picture of a United States congress as incapable of functioning to produce or pass new legislation. There definitely are issues which pertain to the process of legislation being passed which can make the general public become disgruntled, from matters involving the length taken to pass certain legislation or the stalemates a bill may become held up in. Behind much of this large scale legislation that is often met with opposition or lengthy debate, other, smaller bills are passed through congress through a different process; suspension of the rules in the House of Representatives, and through unanimous consent agreements in the Senate. These procedures allow for congress to pass many noncontroversial bills at a quicker rate than other major forms of legislation, and just because the bills are “noncontroversial” do not mean they are unimportant or do not have an impact. Noncontroversial bills are being passed at growing rates by unconventional methods, despite the trouble much large-scale legislation encounters within congress due to the bipartisan system.
            Legislation can become backed up in congress through many ways, making it difficult for different bills to reach the floor for debate. If a bill is stuck in committee, the legislation could be held up until the chair chooses to discuss it or other measures are taken to retrieve it from committee. The House has a couple different procedures for retrieving bills from committees one, by discharge petition, and two by the rules committee extracting the bill or rule.[i] A discharge petition allows for a bill to be pulled out of committee if it has been in said committee for at least 30 legislative days and has a petition of at least 218 signatures.[ii] This video is of Rep. Mark Critz (D) of Pennsylvania asking for more support on his discharge petition in the house.

 Rep Critz is in need of only thirty more signatures on the petition in order to reach the necessary two-thirds majority to bring the bill from the committee to the floor. After the appropriate number of days and signatures, the bill would then go to the floor despite any opposition from the committee. If the rules committee chooses to extract a bill or rule, that bill or rule will afterwards be brought to the floor. The process of bills passing through committees and being debated in the House or Senate can become a long process, and is one of the reasons which congress seems to sometimes be stagnate over major legislations. Noncontroversial bills seen in congress are given an easier and faster chance to pass through the House or Senate, allowing for them to bypass many of the obstacles major legislation would encounter.
            Normally after committee, legislation would then be put on the calendar. The House of Representatives has four calendars, where the Senate only has two. The process of setting these calendars and the agenda can be a tedious task and is another reason why expediting the noncontroversial bills is beneficial. To set the calendars, congress must consider numerous factors such as; scheduling around campaigns; scheduling legislation that may be beneficial to the party in terms of impressing or exciting party supporters; attempting to balance the workload of the house; and quite importantly, by what legislation it thinks will actually pass through.[iii] The Senate uses many of the same criteria when scheduling while also keeping in mind the senator’s family lives, and the time it will allow for debate. These factors, while letting much legislation to be placed on the calendar, can also skew what pieces make the cut. For instance an issue that may be beneficial for exciting party supporters, may not be the issue of greatest importance.
            The House of Representatives allows for privileged bills to be brought to the floor under certain circumstances, namely through suspension of the rules. This process is an effort to ease the passage of certain noncontroversial bills, which may not need long term debate such as the naming of a post office. Suspension of the rules can only take place on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or the last six days congress is in session.[iv] Debates are limited to 40 minutes split evenly among the proponents and opponents of the bill, and amendments can only be made if the floor manager offers them as the motion is made.[v] This clip is of Jason Chaffetz R-Utah asking for a suspension of the rules for H.R. 2061, and entering into a debate following the request.
 After the debate takes place, the final vote will be made and with a two-thirds majority (218) the vote will be final. In the case of H.R. 2061, the bill received a vote of 425-0.
            From the period between in 1987 to 2005, and increased number of bills were passed by this process of rule suspension. Some reasons for the increased number over time are due to the heavily bipartisan house. If the majority party allows and votes with the minority party on many of their small bills, then they may have a better chance at reciprocity when it comes to their large-scale legislation. Because bills can be past so quickly under this procedure, the House created a cluster voting rule, which allows for there to be many votes on various bills in a short amount of time.[vi] With the numerous bills being passed under rules suspension, lawmakers are able to increase their voting percentages. An increase in voting percentages is beneficial come campaign season, in instances where the lawmaker’s attendance in congress is called into question. Despite the ease under which bills are passed through this process, opposition can be made due to it being taken advantage of in certain instances.
            A reason in which some may disagree with the use of suspending the rules is due to the fact that some lawmakers may try to pass through legislation believed to be controversial or large scale. In 2008 Speaker Pelosi suspended the rules of many energy bills in order to stop amendments from being made to them that would authorize off shore drilling and require Democrats to vote on the controversial issue and possibly upset their constituents.[vii] The minority party typically has the strongest opposition to the suspension of the rules, claiming not to have enough of their legislation brought to the floor in this manner or that the legislation brought to the floor requires more than the 40 minute debated allotted to it. Often some of the strongest proponents for the suspension of the rules are the chairs of the committees. Through this process, their bills are being protected from unwanted amendments being made to them. The method with which the house deals with noncontroversial bills can be seen by some as controversial, where as the Senate handles their noncontroversial bills in a somewhat simpler manner.
            The Senate approaches noncontroversial bills with unanimous consent agreements as opposed to the suspension of the rules. Once a call for unanimous consent takes place the agreements is enacted without debate. The process of unanimous consent differs from suspension of the rules in that much of the groundwork, or gathering support is done behind the scenes. Senators typically do not ask for unanimous consent unless they know for sure that it will pass through. Senator’s aides will often spend much of their time writing, emailing, and talking with other Senators to insure they have their support and that they are not planning to object.[viii] This process of gaining support for unanimous consent can become a long and drawn out process; it once took majority leader Frist a year to work out a deal between minority leader Reid in order to guarantee unanimous consent on a bill authorizing the federal government to fund stem-cell research.[ix]
            As long as it takes to hash out deals behind closed doors for unanimous consent agreements, it can take a matter of minutes on the floor of the Senate to not only ask for unanimous consent on one issue, but on several. This clip shows Senator John McCain (D) of Arizona asking for unanimous consent to bring forth a handful of bills on behalf of other Senators.

 Senator McCain shows just how quick calling for unanimous consent can be, and because of the quickness how they are able to address so many issues at one time. Unanimous consent agreements persist in two forms, the first, a simple unanimous consent agreement, deal primarily with noncontroversial bills such as adding something to the congressional record, rescinding a quorum call, or waive one of the three readings of the bill being addressed.[x]  These simple unanimous consent agreements allow for noncontroversial legislation which requires little debate to pass through with ease, where complex unanimous consent agreements allow for adjustments on more intricate issues.[xi] It can allow special procedures to take place regarding the pending legislation, by restricting the number of amendments the bill can have, or the amount of time that can be spent debating it.
            For legislation to be passed in the congress, it must go through the necessary steps and procedures. The formal process of going to committee, then to the floor for debate can often become lengthy, and depending on the issue at hand the said bill could become jammed up in the committee. Congress has taken steps to allow for a little more ease on their parts in order to insure more legislation can be pushed through. Through the House’s ability to call bills to the floor through the suspension of the rules or the Senate’s unanimous consents agreement, congress has enabled many noncontroversial bills to be passed through.

Oleszek, Walter J., Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process. Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 2011. Book. P. 166-168.
[ii] Ibid., 167.
[iii] Ibid., 134-135.
[iv] Ibid., 135.
[v] Ibid., 136.
[vi] Ibid., 139.
[vii] Ibid., 138.
[viii] Ibid., 226.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Ibid., 235.
[xi] Ibid., 236.