I’ll bet you’ve never heard of it. It’s a process that completely bypasses pesky debates, hearings, and annoying public outcry.
Hotlining can be used if both the Senate majority and minority leaders agree to the procedure, which completely sidesteps a traditional vote. Phone calls are made to each Senate office, using special “hotline” telephones, and a specified amount of time is given for objections to be made.
If no objections are returned, the bill is considered to have passed by “unanimous consent”. (Senator Tom Coburn, R-OK, gives more particulars of the hotlining process on his website.)
While this approach is fine for some truly mundane bills, it has been increasingly used for more important legislation. According to Paul Jacob:
In a four-day period this summer, of the 153 hotline calls made, 75 were legislative measures, 61 were nominations, and 17 were post-office-naming bills. A few of these bills authorized hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending.
Senator Coburn tells us that during the ‘05-’06 Senate session, there were 341 bills and joint resolutions which were approved. He cites the Congressional Research Service to report that:
“…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 [unanimous consent] 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.”
During this session things haven’t been much better. According to a Roll Call article which cites the Library of Congress’ legislative database THOMAS, only 29 of the 399 bills passed by the Senate, a roll-call vote was taken only 29. “Unanimous consent” was used for the other 370 bills, most of which were managed using hotlining.
Roll Call observes:
In a March 2006 floor speech, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) harshly criticized the practice. â€œThe calls are from the Republican and the Democratic leaders to each of their Members, asking consent to pass this or that bill â€” not consider the bill or have debate on the bill but to pass it,â€ Sessions said.
â€œIf the staff do not call back … the bill passes. Boom. It can be 500 pages. In many offices, when staffers do not know anything about the bill, they usually ignore the hotline and let the bill pass without even informing their Senators. If the staff miss the hotline, or do not know about it or were not around, the Senator is deemed to have consented to the passage of some bill which might be quite an important piece of information.â€
The authors of the US Constitution intentionally made the legislative process cumbersome and slow, realizing that time and consideration would increase the likelihood that good laws were passed. They never intended that the process be streamlined for almost instantaneous law-making.
The hotlining process is rife with opportunity for abuse.
Five hundred page bills?
Passed only because no senator takes time to object (if his staff even bothers to inform him or her)?
Legislation authorizing the expenditure of millions of dollars?
It is high time the public became informed of this dangerous shortcut and let Senate leadership know hotlining has to go, or at least be used only as originally intended.
I won’t be holding my breath.
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