Senate Confirmation FAQ

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 16 2001 11:57 AM

Senate Confirmation FAQ

When did the process of confirming a presidential appointee go from nice-nice to knife fight?

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While the vast majority of people requiring Senate confirmation get it, ours is not the only time that the system has been less than civil. James Madison had a contentious time with the Senate over some Cabinet and Supreme Court appointments, as did Andrew Jackson. During the 19th century, the Senate rejected 35 percent of Supreme Court nominations. Scholars cite a number of turning points leading to today's irritable process. Watergate ushered in far more ethics vetting with extreme scrutiny of possible conflicts of interest, particularly financial. The fact that Congress and the White House are now often of different parties has driven the Senate to play a larger role in shaping the executive branch. And the rejection of Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987, after a fierce campaign by interest groups opposing his nomination, led to the modern media era of bruising nominations. In the last years of the Clinton administration, the "consent" part of the Senate confirmation process almost completely broke down--judicial and diplomatic appointees could barely get the Senate committees to schedule hearings on their nominations.

Where does the Senate get the power to decide on certain presidential appointees?

Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution says the president "shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for. ..." There are also other legal statutes and executive orders that govern the process.

How many people require Senate approval?

About 1,000, from Cabinet secretaries to heads of commissions to U.S. attorneys. (For more on whom the president can appoint, see this Jan. 11 Explainer.)

How many senators have to vote to approve a nomination?

A simple majority--that is, one more in favor than opposed. If the Senate, divided along party lines, splits 50-50 on any nomination, the vice president-to-be, Dick Cheney, can cast the tie-breaker. The majority of nominations, however, don't come up for a roll call vote but are approved by unanimous consent--agreement that does not require a recording of individual votes. It has become custom, however, given the importance of the positions, for Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices to get a roll call vote. And if a nomination is controversial, opposing senators will request a roll call in order to register their objection.

Besides voting down a nomination, how else can the Senate block it?

Through filibusters or the more common "hold." Filibusters are rarely used, but in 1995 Clinton's nomination of Dr. Henry Foster for surgeon general died due to a Republican filibuster. More common are the mysterious Senate holds. This process, not spelled out in the Senate rules, allows any senator, for no given reason, to anonymously put on hold a nomination by simply asking his or her party leader for the delay. It was originally a sort of courtesy accorded to senators who wanted a vote delayed briefly due to scheduling problems or who needed time to gather more information. In recent years it has turned into a method for permanent obstruction. Holds can be put on for purposes that have nothing to do with a nominee as a way of forcing the administration to accommodate a senator's wishes on another matter. In recent years there have been 30 or more holds at a given time on nominees for judicial, ambassadorial, and other posts. A recent reform is requiring identification of the senator requesting the hold, but that has not always been forthcoming.