An Inside Look at the Senate Confirmation Process

Rob Chamberlin

As the new Administration takes shape, an enormous amount of work will be placed on the Senate and its respective committees responsible for confirming Cabinet Secretaries and other sub-Cabinet, Senate-confirmed positions.

For members of the Cabinet and other Presidential appointments that require Senate confirmation, the process involves seven steps:

  1. Selection
  2. Background check
  3. Assignment to a committee for review
  4. Meeting with committee members and staff
  5. Committee hearing
  6. Floor debate
  7. Vote

Selection and background check. Once the President-elect has made his selection, each Cabinet Secretary will go through an FBI security check and Office of Government Ethics for potential conflicts of interest. Information found is provided to a limited number of Members on an as needed/required basis.

Committee assignment. Formal papers are submitted to the Senate for each nominee, and each nomination is then assigned to the Committee with oversight of that Department.

Meeting with committee members and staff. The secretary-designees are trotted up to Capitol Hill to meet with the Chairs, Ranking members, and the key committee staffs that will process and review the credentials of the nominee. Staff will look to make sure that the nominee has provided all of the required and requested information, that he or she has complied with a wide range of requirements, that conflicts of interest have been addressed, and a host of other issues. All of this occurs before the nominee is formally introduced to the committee and testifies.

As the nominee meets with members of the committee, it provides the standard opportunity to raise issues or concerns that members may have with the nominee. All of this is an effort by the Administration to move the nominations seamlessly. It is where the member and nominee look each in the eye and decide whether they will be able to work with that person, many times despite disagreements over policy.

Committee hearing. With this expected to be more consistently contentious than past confirmation processes, the public will take interest as the process tumbles into the public sphere with the hearing on the nominee. Typically, the nominees are introduced by his or her home state Senators, while others may testify in support of the nominee. The nominees then take center stage, fielding questions from committee members regarding whether their stances on issues, in an effort for the nominee to make public pronouncements to the committee on their positions.

A deft nominee will consistently appear to answer the question, but avoid the commitment. A common refrain may be, “Senator, that is an excellent question, and it is one that I need to go back and take a look at. Let me get back to you on that, and I do understand where you are coming from, but need to better understand the options available to me, if confirmed, to address your concerns.” The Committee then considers the nomination as part of an Executive Session and is voted upon.

Floor debate and vote. If the nominee gets a majority of votes on the Committee, the nominee is placed on the Executive Calendar for the Senate. The Senate Majority Leader will call up that nomination. The process unfolds before the full Senate, with members given the opportunity to provide statements in support or in opposition, and raise questions or concerns. Most Cabinet nominations go through the Senate process fairly quickly, despite some opposition. Members may have strong disagreements with a particular nomination, but most of the members recognize the President gets to select his Cabinet.

Until 2013, a 60-vote majority was required to confirm these positions. However, in November of that year, the Democrats invoked an archaic rule that allowed them to change Senate rules, with 52 Democrats voting to allow a 51-vote threshold to confirm judicial and administration nominees, other than to the Supreme Court. This vote virtually assures a sitting President will get their nominees confirmed if their party controls the Senate. However, the minority party will still have the opportunity to inflict pain, by holding a drawn out hearing or voicing strong opposition, in particular to the press. It will be interesting to go through this process during these rounds of confirmation hearings, as it differs slightly from the normal process.

Stay tuned for more as nominations are submitted to the Senate!

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