Senate Confirmation Process: A Brief Overview
he role of the Senate in the confirmation process is defined in the Constitution. Article II,
Section 2 provides that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and
Consent of the Senate, shall appoint high government officials.” Positions requiring T
confirmation are specified by statute. Senate Rule XXXI regulates proceedings on nominations in
executive sessions (“executive” in this case refers to executive business, not to a closed or secret
session). Each Senate committee may adopt its own procedures as long as they do not conflict 1
with Senate rules. For more information on congressional processes, see http://www.crs.gov/
The Senate gives its advice and consent to presidential appointments to the Supreme Court and to
high-level positions in the Cabinet departments and independent agencies. The Senate also
confirms appointments of members of regulatory commissions, ambassadors, federal judges, U.S.
attorneys, and U.S. marshals. There are more than 2,000 of these appointments as well as
thousands of routine non-political appointments and promotions in the military and other civilian
positions that require confirmation. Appointees named to be Supreme Court justices and Cabinet
secretaries receive the Senate’s closest scrutiny due to the significance of these positions.
Approximately 99% of all presidential appointments are approved. The confirmation process for
individual nominations typically follows these steps:
The President submits a nomination in writing to the Senate. The nomination is read on the floor
and the executive clerk assigns it a number. A nomination is not voted on by the full Senate on the
1 CRS reports on various aspects of appointments are available at http://apps.crs.gov/cli/
cli.aspx?PRDS_CLI_ITEM_ID=2155 for judicial branch appointments, and http://apps.crs.gov/cli/
cli.aspx?PRDS_CLI_ITEM_ID=2153 for executive branch appointments.
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
same day the Senate receives it, or on the day on which it is reported by a committee, except by
The Parliamentarian, acting on behalf of the presiding officer, refers each nomination to the
committee with jurisdiction over the position or the agency in which the position exists. More
than one committee may have the opportunity to examine a nomination; some nominations are
referred sequentially, and a few are jointly referred to two or more committees. Confirmation
hearings, generally open to the public, are not held on all nominations. The closest scrutiny in
hearings is given to the most senior appointments, and also to controversial nominees, to afford
committee members an opportunity to question a nominee to determine his or her fitness for a
post. Senators may also use hearings as a forum to advance their own views on public policy, to
determine or challenge the administration’s position on policy issues, and to extract commitments
from a nominee. In addition to investigations already conducted by or at the behest of the White
House, each Senate committee may have its own questions or forms for the nominee, and may
conduct its own investigation. Often a nominee is introduced at a hearing by a Senator or both
Senators from his or her home state, and may be accompanied by other Members of Congress.
Supporters and opponents of a nominee are occasionally permitted to testify.
Most committees have rules governing how soon after hearings the committee may vote on a
nomination. The committee has the option to report the nomination favorably, unfavorably, or
without recommendation, or to take no action at all. If the committee votes to report the
nomination, it is then filed with the legislative clerk, who notifies the executive clerk.
Committees usually do not submit written reports to accompany nominations. The executive clerk
assigns a calendar number to each reported nomination (or list of nominees in the case of military
commissions), and the nomination is placed on the Executive Calendar. The calendar identifies
the number of the presidential nomination message, the name of the nominee, the office to which
he or she is nominated, and the name of the predecessor holding the office. Other details about
the nomination, such as committee action, are also provided. Although unusual, a committee may
be discharged by resolution from further consideration of a nomination. Such a resolution is listed
in the Executive Calendar.
The Senate meets in executive session to consider nominations, but may not begin floor
consideration of a nomination until it has been on the Executive Calendar for at least one day,
except by unanimous consent. Nominations are subject to unlimited debate, subject to cloture
being invoked (which requires 60 votes). In some instances, one or more Senators may place a
“hold” on a nomination, thereby delaying or preventing it from reaching the floor for further
action. Under Senate Rule XXXI, the final question on a nomination is, “Will the Senate advise
and consent to this nomination?” The Senate has three options: confirm, reject, or take no action
on the nomination. Confirmation requires a simple majority vote.
Although Senate Rule XXXI requires pending nominations be returned to the President when the
Senate recesses for more than 30 days or adjourns between sessions, this requirement is often
waived. Nominations pending at the end of a Congress are returned to the President, and they
must be resubmitted for the Senate to reconsider them.
Once the Senate has acted on a nomination, the Secretary of the Senate attests to a resolution of
confirmation or rejection, which is transmitted to the White House. All nominations submitted to
the Senate as well as action on them are printed in the Congressional Record and a number of
other Senate publications. Details on nominations pending, confirmed, withdrawn, failed, and
returned are available at http://www.senate.gov/reference/Nominations/Index.htm.
The Senate also confirms nonpolitical appointments to and promotions in the military and other
civilian positions (in the Foreign Service, Public Health Service, and National Oceanic
Atmospheric Administration). These routine nominations are usually “placed on the secretary’s
desk.” The Senate typically considers and approves these nominations by unanimous consent,
frequently en bloc, without committee action. Routine nominations in any given Congress
number between 50,000 and 100,000.
Lorraine H. Tong
Analyst in American National Government