After asking Gen. Stanley McChrystal to step aside, President Obama tapped Gen. David Petraeus on Wednesday to take over as commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Petraeus is now scheduled to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a confirmation hearing next week. The Senate already confirmed Petraeus as commander of multinational forces in Iraq and then as commander of U.S. Central Command—do they really have to confirm him again?
Yes. Military officers in all but the lowest ranks (i.e., lieutenant and captain in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps and lieutenant in the Navy) require Senate confirmation, formally known as "advice and consent," as stipulated in the U.S. Code. Same goes for all top-level presidential appointees on the civilian side—secretaries, undersecretaries, deputy undersecretaries, assistant secretaries—according to Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution. Other than presidential nominations, the only executive act subject to Senate confirmation is signing treaties.
The number of Senate confirmations has ballooned since the process was established in 1789, mostly because the federal government and military have expanded. George Washington submitted 120 nominees for Senate approval, including Henry Knox as Secretary of War. Nowadays the Senate confirms 4,000 civilian and 65,000 military nominees every two-year session.
The Senate approves the vast majority of nominees, and it's rare for them to reject one outright. Craig Becker, Obama's nominee to serve on the National Labor Relations Board, failed to win approval in the Senate in February—but Obama then appointed him during a recess in March. * More often, if Senators don't like a pick, they simply decline to vote until he withdraws, as happened with National Intelligence Council nominee Chas Freeman in March. It's especially rare for military appointees to be rejected, but some are controversial. For example, McChrystal had to apologize during one of his confirmation hearings for writing a memorandum that helped cover up the friendly-fire death of Cpl. Pat Tillman.
Bonus Explainer: Why Senate approval and not House approval? Because the Senate was seen by the founders as a more stable and reliable body. It was less subject to the whims of the people—elections are held every six years instead of every two years, and until 1913, senators were elected indirectly—and therefore served as a better check against the president's actions. In Federalist No. 77, Alexander Hamilton articulated why the House shouldn't have any role in the nomination process: "A body so fluctuating and at the same time so numerous, can never be deemed proper for the exercise of that power."
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Explainer thanks Betty Koed of the Senate Historical Office.
Clarification, June 26, 2010: This article originally stated that the Senate rejected Craig Becker. In fact, he received a majority of votes but failed to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster. (Return to the amended sentence.)