Over the past few weeks, even before Trump was sworn in as president, the process of considering his cabinet nominations began. A number of his nominees are deeply troubling. Sen. Jeff Sessions, who is nominated for attorney general, was once denied a judgeship because of his racist past. Michigan’s own Betsy DeVos is in line to become education secretary after doing her damnedest to torpedo Michigan’s public schools for the last several years. Former Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry is up to become energy secretary even though he said he wanted to eliminate the department in 2011. And on and on.
So, what can be done to stop this trainwreck?
Short answer first, and then a long answer to follow.
Understand that only the Senate considers cabinet nominees as part of their Constitutional Advice and Consent duties. The U.S. House of Representatives has no role in this process, so don’t call your representative about this. They have no say.
Second, as always, call your own Senators only. For us in Michigan, that’s Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters. Again, this is because they are the only senators who will care what you have to say, because they are the only ones we can send away with our votes. I get that you will want to call high-profile senators or committee members, but don’t. Your influence is the strongest by far with your own senators.
The process of confirming nominees is different from the process of legislation. Unlike passing bills into law, the nomination process is a function of the Senate only, and the House of Representatives is not involved. Do not call your Congressperson with your opinions on a nominee, because even if they agree with you, they have no ability to vote on the nominee.
The process of nominating and confirming presidential cabinet members begins when the president makes his choices known. Formally, this happens immediately after the president is sworn in, and he signs nominating documents. But in the interest of making a smooth transition, a president-elect will begin this process weeks before Inauguration Day. Before the nominations are taken up by the Senate, a candidate will be vetted by the FBI, IRS and other agencies.
At least, that is how it supposed to be. As usual with Trump, things aren’t normal. Trump delayed making his nominations known for longer than most presidents-elect, creating a time crunch if a cabinet were to be assembled in time. As Inauguration Day drew near, many candidates hadn’t yet undergone background checks, yet the Senate pushed ahead with the confirmation process anyway.
The nominees are considered by the Senate. First, the nominations are sent to specific committees to consider. For instance, the nominee for secretary of state will be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the nominee for education secretary will be considered by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and so on. A complete list of nominees and committees can be found here.
The committee tasked with a considering a nominee will hold one or more hearings on the candidate. The nominee will be asked questions by people on the committee, and supporters and opponents may also be called to testify. Once testimony is taken, the committee will go into a closed session and take a vote to report the nominee to the full Senate favorably, unfavorably or without recommendation. They can also opt to not take action. In only one instance since 1945 has a nominee considered unfavorable by a committee gone on to be a cabinet member.
Once the nominee has cleared committee, there must be a pause of at least one day before the entire Senate considers the nomination. Interestingly, all Senators must agree to the time and date of the hearing, and if even one Senator disagrees, the process is put on hold indefinitely. Once the Senate takes up the nomination for consideration, there may be further discussion and debate. Then a vote is taken to confirm, reject or take no action on the nominee. Only a simple majority is needed to confirm a nominee.
Again, it’s important to realize that only your own senators will value what you have to say about the nominees. The senators of Nebraska, Montana or Utah know that they don’t need your vote to win the next election, so your opinions won’t move them. Even if your senators are not in the committee where a nominee is being vetted, he or she will eventually have the ability to vote to accept or reject a nominee when the matter comes before the full Senate.
Finally, it’s important to note that not all presidential advisors are subject to this process. For instance, Trump advisors Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon did not need the process of senatorial advice and consent. That said, you are certainly within your rights to call your senators to let them know how you feel about the influence such people have over our nation.