Blog  Senate Confirmation Hearings: A Primer

Senate Confirmation Hearings: A Primer

by Alexa Broida
Director, Mitzvah Corps

The 2016 election was remarkably divisive, and the people that President Trump has been tapping to work with him have been the source of much debate. Wondering what’s been going on, and what’s happening next? It’s complicated, but stick with us, because we’re breaking it all down here.

Some Context

There are millions of people who work for the government, including uniformed military personnel, local, state, and federal government officials, staff in government agencies, and more. A vast majority of these people are career officials, who hold their jobs regardless of who the president is, but there are approximately 4,000 positions that are vacant at the end of an outgoing president’s term, and must be filled by the incoming president. There are several different types of roles that the President will fill, with varying levels of input from other people; arguably the most important of which are the highest level positions that require approval from the United States Senate.

Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution reads, “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…” This clause is included in the Constitution in order to provide checks and balances to the President, ensuring that the people in these roles aren’t too partisan, unqualified, or unwilling to work cooperatively with the Senate.

Currently, in the spirit of this Constitutional requirement, there are a number of positions (approximately 1,200 in total) that require Senate approval via a process known as Senate confirmation hearings. Additionally, President Trump will need nominate a Supreme Court Justice to fill the seat of Justice Antonin Scalia, which has been vacant since his death in February of 2016. Supreme Court nominations must also go through a Senate confirmation hearing.

How does a Senate confirmation hearing work?

There are several steps to a Senate confirmation hearing:

  1. The President selects a nominee, and sends their name to the relevant Senate committee for an initial review.
    For example, the Senate Judiciary Committee will review the nominee for Attorney General, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will review the nominee for Secretary of State.
  2. The Senate committee will then conduct a vetting of the nominee.
    Each Senate committee has different requirements, rules for what information they need from the nominee, and what, if any, information they release to the public. Typically the vetting process includes an FBI background check, a financial disclosure statement, and Office of Government Ethics paperwork.
  3. The Senate committee will then hold hearings on the nominee.
    They also have the opportunity to vote to move the nomination directly to the full Senate, or to vote to stop the process. Most often, the Senate committee will hold a hearing, where members of the committee have a chance to ask the nominee questions, like an intense interview. Each Senate committee has different rules about the hearings, such as how long each senator has to ask questions.
  4. The Senate committee will then vote on whether or not to bring the nominee to the full Senate.
    This vote requires a simple majority, meaning more than half of the ballots passed, in order to make a decision. If they vote in favor of moving the nominee to the full Senate, then the full Senate will vote on whether or not to confirm the nomination.
  5. If the nomination clears the Senate committee, it goes to the full Senate floor for a vote.
    A confirmation of the nomination for most roles requires a simple majority; in the Senate, that means 51 Senators must vote in favor of confirmation. A confirmation of the Supreme Court Justice requires 60 votes.

Who is the President trying to get confirmed?

With so many positions that need to be confirmed by the Senate, they will take months to fill, so the most important and urgent are his top officials, those in the Cabinet (the Vice President and a group of 15 other people who oversee major government agencies), the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Trade Representative, the ambassador to the United Nations, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and the head of the Small Business Administration.

President Trump is hoping to get these 19 people confirmed to the top in his Cabinet and leadership, as well as Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

What’s unique about President Trump’s Cabinet appointments?

The President of the United States ensures that their party or policies are represented in the government by nominating people to these roles that they believe align with their values and positions. While they will work on behalf of the American people, and traditionally the nominees have been moderate enough to satisfy both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate that will need to confirm their appointments. Although the President’s choices are often partisan (along party lines), very rarely has there been any real opposition.

However, the environment surrounding President Trump’s appointments differs from most previous administrations in two key ways:

  1. Though President Trump was elected by winning 304 electoral college votes, he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. Moreover, he has entered the presidency with historically low approval ratings, and there is more partisan polarization than ever before.
  2. Until 2013, presidential appointments needed 60 votes to be confirmed. However, when the Democrats controlled the Senate, they voted to reduce that number to 51 votes in order to be able to confirm some of President Obamas appointees without Republican support. That vote, known as the nuclear option, was helpful to Democrats when they were in the majority; now that they are in the minority (only 48 Democratic senators to 51 Republican senators), the rule will make it more challenging for them to block any of President Trump’s appointments, and thus President Trump is less inclined to nominate people who will earn Democratic support.

These two factors have combined to create a particularly contentious set of circumstances: President Trump has been nominating Cabinet appointees that are far more controversial than his predecessors; reflecting public outrage at his election without a mandate, Democratic senators are motivated to block his nominees’ confirmations; Democrats find themselves without enough votes to block a confirmation, if all senators vote as expected along party lines.

What’s happened so far?

This process is evolving quickly, and updates are happening by the hour. As of Sunday, February 5, we’ve broken down some of the major stories:

What is the Reform Jewish movement saying?

The Reform Jewish movement (the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism) is non-partisan, meaning we do not take stances on political parties or politicians, nor do we cite party lines as reasons to support or oppose people or legislation. Using progressive Jewish values, the Reform Jewish movement takes positions on certain pieces of legislation and legislative issues which can be found on the Religious Action Center website.

There is no uniform position that the Reform Jewish movement takes on confirmation hearings, although there has been strong opposition to the appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, issuing a statement that outlined the nature of the Reform Movement’s concerns. The Central Conference of America Rabbis has also formally opposed Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. 

What can I do to stay informed and involved?

Review the Senate website for a schedule of upcoming hearings and votes.

Check back in with websites that are tracking the status of the Cabinet picks, including The Atlantic and NPR to stay up to date on where everyone is in the process.

Find out all you can about President Trump’s appointees, and then contact your senators to encourage them to support or oppose their nominations.

For the votes that have already happened, find out how your senator voted to get a sense of where they stand on the issues. Then prepare to contact them in the coming weeks, months, and years to either thank them for supporting issues you care about, or urge them to take a different position.

To stand with the Reform Jewish Movement and oppose the appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions, visit the Religious Action Center’s website to take action.