Why do presidential nominees languish in the Senate?
Back to Blog

Why do presidential nominees languish in the Senate?

February 22, 2019 | Updated on October 21, 2020

On Feb. 17, President Trump started his day with a tweet decrying the slow pace of Senate confirmations, a familiar refrain for a president who has vacancies across his administration.

The Partnership for Public Service, with The Washington Post, tracks approximately 700 key executive branch positions that require Senate confirmation. As of Feb. 19, nearly 40 percent of them were either vacant or filled with acting officials. 

There was no official nominee for 147 of these positions, and there were nominees awaiting Senate confirmation for another 128 positions. Trump nominees have waited 107 days on average from nomination to confirmation, and some nominees have waited more than a year.

Filling positions subject to Senate confirmation is a shared responsibility, and the process is complicated. Various White House offices help the president select nominees; the FBI conducts background investigations; and the Office of Government Ethics advises nominees on avoiding conflicts of interest. Agencies help their nominees navigate the entire process, and the nominees play an essential role by providing timely information. Much of this happens before the nomination is ever sent to the Senate.

Once the president formally submits a nomination to the Senate, the committee of jurisdiction usually holds a confirmation hearing. Senators question the nominee and then vote on forwarding the nomination to the full Senate for consideration. However, nominees increasingly linger without receiving a vote, either in committee or on the floor. Why?

  • Paperwork—and lots of it: Nominees must fill out multiple forms with duplicative information and answer dozens or even hundreds of policy questions. The Senate will not act until the paperwork is complete and accurate.
  • So many positions, so little time: More than 1,200 executive branch positions require confirmation—more than the Senate can consider during the roughly 190 days it is in session each year. Nominees compete with each other, legislation and other business for scarce committee and floor time. In 2012, Congress decreased the number of positions that require Senate confirmation but has since created new ones. A separate track created for noncontroversial nominations has done little to speed the process.
  • Nominees as bargaining chips: Any senator can place a “hold” on a nominee to extract concessions from the administration on matters unrelated to the nominee’s qualifications. Taken to an extreme, some senators may see political gain in objecting to virtually every nominee.
  • A system not built for speed: Senate rules and norms make speedy confirmations rare. Invoking “cloture” to limit debate on a nomination still allows for 30 hours of debate time, and a Rules Committee proposal to reduce debate time to two hours for most nominees is opposed by the minority party. A separate rule sends all pending nominations back to the president at the end of a Congress so they must be resubmitted in the next. In January, the Trump administration resubmitted 113 nominations for key leadership positions that expired at the end of the 115th Congress.

Agencies need talented political appointees to lead organizations and be accountable to Congress. Senators must work together to confirm qualified appointees and consider reforms to make the process run smoothly.