Article II, section 2 of the Constitution splits the responsibility for filling high-ranking federal government positions between the executive and legislative branches. The president has the power to appoint people to these positions, but those appointments must be approved by the Senate. The confirmation process provides the Senate the opportunity to influence policy by rejecting nominees, which is an important check on the power of the executive branch.
The Office of Presidential Personnel in the White House does the initial selection and early investigation of potential nominees for executive offices. When the president selects a single nominee, other executive agencies such as the FBI and the IRS become involved. The nominee's professional, financial and personal background are thoroughly reviewed. In the case of federal judges, the president may consult with senators from the state where the vacant court seat is located. Nominees submit financial disclosure documents that are scrutinized by the Office of Government Ethics. Once cleared, the president sends written word of the nomination to the Senate and it is forwarded to the appropriate committee.
Advice and Consent
The Constitution requires the president seek the Senate's "advice and consent" on nominations of high-level government officials, but it doesn't dictate the process. The Senate has developed rules for handling nominations that take into account the need for efficiency. When Congress establishes a new federal agency, it also establishes which positions in that agency will be subject to Senate confirmation. Of all the military, judicial and executive positions requiring Senate approval, about 99 percent are confirmed without extensive hearings. Some, particularly military appointments, may be confirmed in large blocks of several hundred at a time. Most of these nominees won't be making policy, and therefore the Senate isn't overly concerned with who holds the position.
The Role of Committees
Presidential nominees not routinely confirmed are forwarded to the appropriate Senate committee that deals with the particular area of the appointment. For example, the Committee on the Judiciary handles appointments of judges, U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals. The Committee on Foreign Relations looks at ambassador nominees and other diplomatic appointments. Each committee has its own written rules for gathering and reviewing information on nominees. Many have their own background checks and may meet with the nominee prior to sending the nominee to the full Senate for a hearing. In some cases, witnesses may be called to present testimony on a nominee's background and qualifications for office. Once the committee has completed its investigation, members vote to report the nominee to the full senate. The committee may report a nominee favorably, unfavorably or without recommendation.
Most appointments aren't subject to a full Senate hearing, but policy-making positions in the executive department, such as cabinet officials, can count on extensive hearings prior to Senate confirmation. The Senate scrutinizes federal judges intensely as well, given those are lifetime appointments. Confirmation hearings are open to the public and often attract media attention. Nominees typically are introduced by one or both senators from their state of residence and asked questions from all senators about their background, qualifications, positions on important political issues and potential conflicts of interest. When the hearing is complete, the Senate votes to approve, reject or return the nominee to the reporting committee for further review. A simple majority of Senate votes is required to approve a nomination.
- U.S. Senate: Congressional Research Center: Senate Consideration of Presidential Nominations -- Committee and Floor Procedure
- American Constitution Society: How the Confirmation Process Works
- Federation of American Scientists: Congressional Research Service -- Presidential Appointments, the Senate's Confirmation Process, and Changes Made in the 112th Congress
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