March 24, 1846
Unanimous consent agreements bring order and structure to floor business and expedite the course of legislation. They can be as simple as a request to dispense with a quorum call or as complicated as a binding contract resulting from prolonged and often spirited debate. Senators have been conducting routine business by unanimous consensus since 1789, but the more formal UC agreement dates to the 1840s when Senator William Allen of Ohio sought a method to end debate.
On March 24, 1846, Senator Allen expressed his desire “that there should be some day fixed, by a general understanding,” to bring to close the debate on the Oregon Treaty. After all, for nearly four months, the Senate had been debating this treaty involving a long-standing boundary dispute with Great Britain. Settlement of the treaty would pave the way for the new state of Oregon.
Unfortunately for Allen and his allies, there was no mechanism in place to force a vote, or even to encourage a vote. Cloture, as we know it today, was not established until 1917. As Allen explained, the Senate had not adopted the House’s practice of calling the “previous question,” nor was it “the habit of the Senate to pass a resolution to take a subject out of discussion.” Allen emphasized, however, that the Senate did have a practice of facilitating votes by “a conversational understanding.”
The Senate responded to Allen’s suggestion in a typically polite but pointed manner. I oppose “the adoption of any rule or practice by which debate should be stifled,” protested Tennessee senator Spencer Jarnagin. Gentlemen can “determine for themselves” when proper action should be taken. And so, the debate over the Oregon Treaty continued.
On April 13, 1846, Allen again took the floor. A vote on the Oregon question was inevitable, he argued, so why not agree “to the exact day on which the Senate would proceed to vote.” Such action would be acceptable, argued Kentucky’s James Morehead, “provided it was not to be regarded as establishing a precedent.” But it did set a precedent. Senators reached a consensus and agreed unanimously to end debate and call a vote. In June the Senate approved the treaty resolutions, a territory was established, and in 1859 Oregon became our 33rd state. Scholars believe this is the first example of the Senate adopting a formal UC agreement.
Before long, such pacts were common, but into the 20th century they remained just “a gentlemen’s agreement.” As one presiding officer complained, they could be “violated with impunity” by any senator. Consequently, in January of 1914, the Senate adopted a new rule stating that unanimous consent agreements “shall operate as the order of the Senate” and can be altered only by another UC agreement
By the 1950s UC agreements were a routine but limited procedural tool—and then Lyndon Johnson became leader. Truly understanding the potential of this procedural device, LBJ revamped UC agreements to regulate the entire legislative process—to manage debate, to limit amendments, to schedule a vote, and to strengthen the force of his own majority leadership.