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Holds and Hotlines: How a Single Senator Can Block Consideration of a Bill and the Senate Passes Bills Without Votes
The U.S. Senate is often referred to as “The world's greatest deliberative body.” This is because Senate rules grant each of the Senate’s 100 members rights that can not be overridden by a simple majority, including the right to insist on full, complete, and unlimited debate. Yet, certain Senate practices also prevent or preclude debate. These include the hotline and the hold. Neither of these terms or practices appear in the Senate’s official rules, but they are standard procedures that are utilized nearly every day the Senate is in session.
The Senate “Hotlines” Bills Without Debate or Votes
A “hotline” is an informal term for a request to members of the Senate to agree to allow a bill or resolution to be approved by the Senate without debate or amendment. A measure that is “hotlined” is recorded in the Congressional Record as a being agreed to by unanimous consent (UC). (Some hotlines can include amendments but limit debate and discussion and do not require individual votes on the amendment or the underlying bill).
During the 109th Congress (2005-2006), 341 bills and joint resolutions were passed by the Senate. According to the Congressional Research Service, only 21 of those bills received a roll call vote on the Senate floor. That means 94 percent of law making measures that were passed through the Senate were passed by UC or by voice vote. A large majority of these were hotlined and therefore excluded from full and open debate and the amendment process. In the 109th Congress, 1,408 bills, resolutions, or nominations were attempted to be hotlined, with as many as 40 measures being hotlined in a single day.
How a Hotline Occurs
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.”
In many instances, leadership will hotline bills for which no text, description, or budget estimates have been made publicly available.
In some Senate offices, the hotline, or request for unanimous consent to pass a measure, may never even reach Senators, and the decision to allow a bill to be approved without debate is determined by staff. Staff may also place a hold on a bill without the knowledge of a Senator.
Most Americans do not believe that the lack of an objection from unelected staff should be sufficient to pass legislation that could spend millions or even billions of dollars or significantly alter U.S. laws. Likewise, the power of an unelected staffer to secretly place a hold may also be objectionable to many Americans.
No similar procedures to the hotline or hold exist in the House of Representatives.
Senators Can Block Consideration of a Bill with a “Hold”
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.
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.
Holds can be overcome, but require time consuming procedures such as filing cloture. Cloture is a motion to end debate that requires 60 votes. A hold can also be overcome by a “live UC” which is when a Senator requests unanimous consent from the Senate floor for consideration of a measure. A single objection from any Senator, however, can stop a live UC, but the Senator who is objecting must be present.
Holds are considered to be private communications between a Senator and the Leader, and are sometimes referred to as “secret holds.” A Senator may disclose that he or she has placed a hold. Senator Coburn typically notifies the office of the author of a bill he is holding within 24 hours of placing the hold. Not all Senators provide the same courtesy and keep their holds anonymous, which is their right.
Is the Legislative Process Obstructed or Abused by the Use of Holds?
Some have argued that the Senate holds process has been abused and allows a single Senator to anonymously kill popular legislation. The reality is that there are plenty of tactical maneuvers to circumventing a hold, including a live UC, filing a cloture petition or simply offering a bill as an amendment to another bill being debated by the Senate.
It may actually be the system of hotlines in the Senate that should be reformed. Instead of requiring unanimous consent as required by the Senate rules, the current process in practice merely requires a lack of staff dissent to allow a measure to be considered as being approved by the Senate with unanimous consent.
The Senate should not routinely pass legislation that spends millions or billions of taxpayer dollars without any debate or opportunities for Senators to offer amendments. Under this current practice, the lack of a phone call from a staffer constitutes unanimous consent of the 100 members of the Senate.
Because bills that are passed by unanimous consent via the hotline deny Senators the right to offer amendments of debate the merits of a bill, these practices deny Senators - and the citizens they represent - the right to suggest changes or improvements to legislation.
Every time the Senate passes legislation without full and open debate, the American people are done a disservice. It is wrong to pass a new bill if its text, purpose, and budget estimate are not available to the general public. Taxpayers and the media should have the right to read and analyze legislation prior to its passage. Senators, likewise, have a responsibility to know the contents of legislation prior to granting consent for its passage. Senators are within their rights to object to hotlining or secret passage of bills without debate or that may violate a Senator’s principles without providing an opportunity for amendments.
Dr. Coburn’s Criteria for Holding a Bill
Most bills that are introduced expand the power, authority and cost of the federal government. This is very concerning since the U.S. national debt, which now exceeds $8.7 trillion, is nearly insurmountable. This ever growing red ink threatens both the long-term solvency of important programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, as well as the future standard of living of our children and grandchildren.
For too long, Congress has simply borrowed more and more money to pay for new spending. In the real world, families can not follow this example and must make difficult decisions and set priorities on how to spend their limited financial resources. Paying for a child’s college education or the medical expenses of a loved one compete against purchasing a new car or taking a vacation. Americans want Congress to live within its means, using the same set of common sense rules and restraints they face everyday.
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.
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;
If a bill authorizes new spending, it must be offset by reductions in real spending elsewhere;
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;
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.
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.