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Hotlines and holds–How the US Senate passes bills without votes

I have been doing some reading about the operations of the United States Senate and while this information may not be new to you, it is to me.  Did you know the majority leader of the Senate can put a bill up for approval by the Senate by submitting it for unanimous consent?  He does this by means of an informal hotline, which advises every Senator’s office of the intent to approve the bill by unanimous consent, without a chance to debate or amend the bill.  This is called a hotline and it doesn’t require a Senator to approve it.  Instead, all it requires is for Senator’s office to not dissent. Did you catch what that said?  Here is the full description from Tom Coburn’s website.

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A bill is hotlined at the discretion of the Majority Leader in consultation with the Minority Leader. The leader’s office contacts each Senate office with a message on a special alert line called “the hotline” that provides information on what bill or bills the leader is seeking to pass through unanimous consent. If an office has an objection to the bill being hotlined, they are asked to call the leader’s office and state that they would like to object to the bill being passed by unanimous consent. In practice, instead of requiring explicit unanimous consent to pass a bill, the hotline process only requires a lack of dissent. The process of notifying the leader’s office of an objection to hotline is informally referred to as a “hold.”

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Now, I was under the impression that the Senate was supposed to actually vote on the legislation that was passed through their chambers, but evidently not.  Fortunately, there is a measure in place to prevent this from happening and although a lot of Senators object, Tom Coburn uses it quite frequently.  It’s called a hold. Here is a partial description from Tom Coburn’s website.

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A “hold” is placed when the Leader’s office is notified that a Senator intends to object to a request for unanimous consent (UC) from the Senate to consider or pass a measure.

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A hold may be placed for any reason and can be lifted by a Senator at any time. A Senator may place a hold simply to review a bill, to negotiate changes to the bill, or to kill the bill. A bill can be held for as long as the Senator who objects to the bill wishes to block its consideration.

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Senator Coburn may not be well liked because of his practice of placing holds on legislation that doesn’t meet his criteria, but he does it because that’s what the citizens of Oklahoma sent him to Washington to do.  However, he does not use the “hold” power indiscriminately and if the legislation meets his criteria, then he agrees to allow it to go forward.

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To this end, before Senator Coburn gives his consent to a unanimous consent request or agrees to allow a bill to be considered, the measure must meet the following list of principles.

  1. If a bill creates or authorizes a new federal program or activity, it must not duplicate an existing program or activity without de-authorizing the existing program;
  2. If a bill authorizes new spending, it must be offset by reductions in real spending elsewhere;
  3. If a program or activity currently receives funding from sources other than the federal government, a bill shall not increase the federal government’s proportion of the costs of the program or activity;
  4. If a bill establishes a new foundation, museum, cultural or historical site, or other entity that is not an agency or a department, federal funding should be limited to the initial start-up costs and an endowment shall provide funding thereafter.
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This is not an exhaustive list, and Senator Coburn may also object to legislation that oversteps the limited role of the federal government enshrined in our Constitution by our Founders or that violates his own personal convictions.

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It is very strange that one of the very bodies set up to govern us as American citizens, with represenatives chosen by us, would have rules in place to allow legislation to pass without our knowledge or consent. Thank God for someone like Tom Coburn who is willing to help limit this practice, even if it puts him at odds with his colleagues in the Senate. At least he is trying to do what is right.

About LD Jackson

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LD Jackson has written 2053 posts in this blog.

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Founder and author of the political and news commentary blog Political Realities. I have always loved to write, but never have I felt my writing was more important than in this present day. If I have changed one mind or impressed one American about the direction our country is headed, then I will consider my endeavors a success. I take the tag line on this blog very seriously. Above all else, in search of the truth.

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  • JMC

    All Most, but no cigar. Hotlines are bills that have been cleared by committee. There happens to be no time to debate all bills. Maybe the Senate should give back to the people their August vacation. The U. S. Senate has to change its ways. Any senator can place a bill on hold to prevent it from being voted on. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has 95 bills on hold.
    One of them is a bill overwhelmingly approved by the House of Representatives, which would give the CDC the ability to collect data on ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). The ALS Registry Act would support research in finding a cure and passed 411-3 in the House. What is the role of the House? Why do we have committees that approve bills sent from the house?
    Senate Republicans often put bills on hold in 2007 to give the Democratic-led Congress a bad reputation, and it is working.
    Hopefully, nine Republican senators will be defeated so 60 Democratic senators can move legislation approved in the House, that’s how it works. Oh and this bill was approved by the H.E.L.P. of which Sen. Coburn sits.

  • JMC,
    Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog. I am sorry it has taken me so long to approve it, but I just sat down in front of my computer, after getting off work.

    I realize you must feel very strongly about ALS. It is a terrible disease, which I have witnessed first hand myself. As for Senator Coburn’s hold on the bill, please visit the following link and read the Senator’s response to a Tulsa World editorial regarding his wish that the ALS Registry Act be debated on the floor of the Senate.

    Editorial Response