Appointment confirmation process
Before any nominations are made, the White House Office of Presidential Personnel vets a list of candidates, including suggestions provided by members of Congress and special interest groups. A chosen nominee then must pass through a series of investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service, the Office of Government Ethics and an ethics official from the agency to which the position is assigned. The nominee must also fill out the Public Financial Disclosure Report and questionnaires related to his or her background check.
The process begins when the president provides a written nomination to the Senate, where it is read on the floor and assigned a number. This starts the Senate's procedure of advice and consent laid out in the U.S. Constitution for the appointment of high ranking officials by the president.
The nomination is passed to the Senate committee with jurisdiction over the appointed position. Some PAS positions require a joint hearing of two or more committees. Committee hearings allow a close examination of the nominee looking for partisanship and views on public policy. They can also summon supporters and opponents to testify. Committees are permitted to conduct their own investigations into the nominees, as they are not always provided with the information gathered by the White House's investigation. Once committee hearings are closed, most committees have a set amount of time before a vote is taken on whether the nominee is reported to the Senate favorably, unfavorably or without recommendation. They also have the option to not take action on the nominee. If action is taken, the committee notifies the executive clerk. The nomination is then given a number and added to the Executive Calendar of the Senate.
Only one cabinet position since 1945 has been confirmed by the Senate after being reported as unfavorable by a committee. Henry A. Wallace was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 56-32 to become the secretary of commerce on March 1, 1945.
The nomination must be on the Executive Calendar for more than one day before it can make it to the Senate floor for consideration. Unanimous consent of the time and date for debate must be agreed upon by all senators. If even one senator does not agree, a hold is placed on the nomination. Once the nomination is considered by the Senate, unlimited debate is allowed until two-thirds of the Senate vote to invoke cloture, closing debate. Following a vote of cloture, the Senate conducts a simply majority vote on whether to confirm, reject or take no action on the nomination. If a nomination is left pending at the end of a Congress, it must be sent back to the president who can then re-submit the nomination to the new Congress. The same procedure holds true with any nominee not considered before the Senate enters a recess of more than 30 days, unless there is unanimous consent to bypass the procedure.
Finally, the Senate's action on the nomination is sent to the president. All results are recorded in the Congressional Record.
Number of appointments
The speed at which PAS positions are nominated and confirmed has been drawn out as the number of positions has grown. A Congressional Research Service report in May 2013 found that of 346 PAS positions in 15 federal departments, 90 were not filled. Congress attempted to ease the issue in 2011 with the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act, by expediting 272 positions requiring confirmation and eliminating the confirmation process for another 163.
Mel Watt nomination blocked
On October 31, 2013, the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt, (D-NC) to the Federal Housing Finance Agency was blocked by Senate Republicans by means of a filibuster. Cloture was not reached with a vote of 56-42, leaving Watt the first sitting congressman to be denied confirmation to an appointed office since 1843. Both the Obama administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were hopeful of a future confirmation. Sen. Lindsey Graham insisted he would block every nominee until more information on Benghazi was released, while Sen. Rand Paul stated he would block the nomination of Janet Yellen until his Federal Reserve bill was passed.
On November 21, 2013, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invoked the "nuclear option" in the Senate. The "nuclear option" is using an interpretation of Senate procedure to be able to change chamber rules with a simple majority vote. In this case, the option was used to change the vote requirement for executive nominee confirmations to be considered on the floor. Prior to the rule change, Senators could filibuster until a cloture motion requiring 60 votes was passed in the chamber. The "nuclear option" changed the requirement to a simple majority. The threat of the "nuclear option" occurred in many Congresses, but none had put the option into use.
The "nuclear option" was invoked in response to Senate Republicans blocking the nomination of three D.C. Circuit Court judges. The rule change passed by a vote of 52-48, with Carl Levin, Joe Manchin and Mark Pryor being the only Democrats to vote in opposition. According to the Congressional Research Service, of the 67 times between 1967 and 2012 the filibuster was used on a judicial nominee, 31 have been during during the Obama administration.
- CRS Report for Congress, "Senate Confirmation Process: An Overview," April 4, 2003 (accessed July 24, 2013)
- Washington Post, "Does the Senate really need to confirm 1,200 executive branch jobs?," July 16, 2013 (accessed July 25, 2013)
- Government Printing Office, "United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions (Plum Book) 2012" (accessed July 23, 2013)
- Congressional Research Service, "Presidential Appointments, the Senate's Confirmation Process, and Proposals for Change," October 9, 2012 (accessed July 25, 2013)
- Google Books, "Senate, 1789-1989: Historical Statistics, 1789-1992, Volume 4," accessed August 22, 2013 (Note: page 687)
- FCW, "Counting heads: CRS tallies unfilled presidential appointments," July 1, 2013 (accessed July 25, 2013)
- Washington Post, "Senate GOP blocks Mel Watt nomination," October 31, 2013
- USA Today, "Reid says he will try again to push Watt nomination," October 31, 2013
- Politico, "Senate goes for 'nuclear option'," November 21, 2013