The United States Senate is very strict on its rules of order. Things must be done in a prescribed manner or any action taken may be declared invalid, causing the proposal to start back at the beginning of the process once again. However, some of those procedures are simply not needed and amount to a waste of time. Unanimous consent is a way to bypass some of this red tape.
While many Americans may believe the Senate is nothing but a partisan-based shout fest, there are a number of items that do get unanimous, or nearly unanimous consent. These happen almost on a daily basis. Normally, most Americans do not hear of these actions simply because they are not controversial enough to warrant coverage by the mass media. If they were, they would probably not be a candidate for this method.
Unanimous consent is often used to take care of matters that do not interest the majority of the American population. In some cases, senators may wish to give acknowledgment to a constituency group in their state who has achieved a special milestone, such as a business celebrating a 100-year anniversary. In other cases, senators may ask a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol be donated to someone or some organization for a particular reason. These items are often routine in nature and may be handled by unanimous consent. Treaties and other such measures may also be offered into the Senate record in this way.
While most unanimous consent agreements are for routine matters or are important to an individual senator but hardly worth the time of the body as a whole, some controversial measures can also have a unanimous agreement component to them. Often, senators from both sides of the aisle may agree to limit the time used to debate one of these proposals in this way. While the vote to pass a controversial bill or resolution will not be done by unanimous consent, the agreement could effect the debate on the proposal.
Just because a matter passes a unanimous consent proposal does not mean it has the support of all senators. In some cases, a senator may object to a proposal but understand it has wide support for passage. In order to save time, that senator may agree to unanimous consent, knowing he or she is fighting a losing battle.