US Cabinet Confirmations

Over the last week or so, controversy has swirled around several of President Trump’s picks for his government cabinet, with much of the attention focused on the confirmation process. On Tuesday, in a story that made global news, Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts began reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, on the floor of the United States Senate. She was quickly blocked from speaking by the Leader of the Senate, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The drama took place during the confirmation vote for the new Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions.

This week’s blog is focused on the process of cabinet confirmations, hopefully providing a bit of background on how the process works, along with a discussion of some of the controversies that have emerged over Trump’s picks.

The process by which a cabinet is confirmed is relatively straightforward. When a new President is elected, he/she has a large number of important vacancies to fill. Secretary of Defence, Secretary of State, Secretary of Education…the list is very long and boring and includes some jobs that even the nominees themselves don’t seem to understand. The President selects candidates he/she wants to fill each position. The candidates are subjected to background checks and vetting (the non-extreme kind) and then, as long as everything is in order, they proceed to the US Senate for ‘confirmation hearings’, which are basically a series of very intense job interviews. The Senate has a number of ‘committees’, AKA smaller groups of Senators, to focus on different issues (such as the Senate Finance Committee which deals with…well, you get the picture). Each nominee is interviewed by the relevant committee. So, for example, the nominee for Secretary of Defence is interviewed by the Senate Committee on Armed Services. The hearings represent an opportunity for individual Senators to ask direct questions of the various cabinet nominees in order to (in theory, at least) ascertain whether or not they are suitable for the job.

Once the hearings are complete, the nomination proceeds to the Senate for a vote. Cabinet nominations only need a simple majority to be confirmed, that means 51 out of 100 Senators have to vote in favour of the nominee for them to get the job. As the Republicans currently have 52 seats in the Senate, they have enough votes to confirm all of Trump’s picks provided they all stick together and vote the same way. If they do, there’s very little the Democratic Senators can do to stop them. As a result, most of Trump’s picks have been confirmed without too many issues. His nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, his pick for Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, as well as Tom Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services…all were confirmed without too much fuss.

However, not every nomination was so straightforward. Ben Carson, a former brain surgeon who sometimes sounds as if he has been operating mainly on himself, became the nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. This was despite the fact that he had previously admitted being unqualified for a cabinet position. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Education Secretary, seems not to have received much of one herself. During her confirmation hearings, she struggled to provide coherent answers on different methods for measuring school test results and also suggested that some schools might need guns on campus in order to protect students from grizzly bear attacks (this is not satire, it’s a direct quote). As a result, two Republican Senators (Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski) decided that they couldn’t support her. Eventually she was successfully confirmed, but only after Vice President Mike Pence broke a tie vote in the Senate, the first time in US history this has happened for a President’s cabinet nomination. (The US Vice President actually has very few official powers under the Constitution, but he/she does have the power to cast the deciding vote in the Senate in the case of a tie. If it is not a tie, the VP cannot vote).

Other controversies followed. As mentioned earlier, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted to raise concerns about the racial attitudes of Trump’s nomination for Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions (the Attorney General is the head of the US Department of Justice). She was blocked from doing so by an obscure Senate rule that prevents Senators from “imput[ing] to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” The history of this particular rule is hilarious and worth a read (spoiler alert: it starts with a fist-fight between two Senators). To summarize, the Majority Leader of the Senate, Republican Mitch McConnell, claimed that it was against Senate rules for Elizabeth Warren to imply that Jeff Sessions (a fellow Senator) might hold racist views. As this particular rule is so rarely invoked (and has been ignored in other cases), the incident caused uproar. However, it is possible that wily old Mitch McConnell had an alternative, subtler motive, besides just providing the Democratic Party with some easy headlines. By preventing her from speaking, he has turned Elizabeth Warren into something of a cause célèbre amongst Liberals. There is some speculation that his real aim was to improve Senator Warren’s standing in the hearts and minds of Democratic Party supports, thus elevating her to the position of frontrunner for the Democratic Party Presidential candidacy in 2020. According to this theory, he is calculating that Trump would be able to beat her easily. Whether or not he’s betting the right way, only time will tell.

Of course, it’s also possible that he wasn’t really playing a game of Machiavellian multi-dimensional chess at all. Maybe he’s just a bit of a dick.

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