All Presidents have the opportunity and obligation to fill numerous positions in government with appointments. Many of these jobs require a confirmation from the Senate. For some appointees, this process is straightforward as they have the experience and reputation to make the confirmation a relatively easy decision for the Senators. The vast majority of appointees in recent history that have come before the Senate have been confirmed and in short order they begin the work of governing at the pleasure of the President.
A few Presidential appointees find the process difficult, with endurance during hearings being a skill they find necessary. Senators from all parties are given the opportunity to interrogate these individuals in person during a Committee Hearing that can last hours, with more questions being asked in writing that can take days, and many sleepless nights for staffers, to fully answer.
The current administration has been in the midst of the, sometimes chaotic, bustle of filling out Cabinet, Judiciary, and other high-level appointed positions throughout the first few weeks of the President’s term. Within the first month, many positions were announced and subsequently confirmed. Notably, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, is the only unanimous confirmation. Extraordinarily, the Secretary of Education’s, Betsy DeVos, confirmation vote was split 50-50, requiring the Vice President, Mike Pence, to cast the deciding vote to confirm. It was the first time in history that the Vice President was required to break a tie for a Cabinet level position confirmation.
Although many posts have been filled, many more either remain awaiting hearings and confirmation from the Senate or to simply have an appointment announced by the President. At the time of this writing, the next Senate Committee Hearings are scheduled on March 14, 2017 for Trade Representative appointee Robert Lighthizer and on March 15, 2017 for the replacement appointee for Secretary of Labor, Alex Acosta. Previously, Andrew Puzder withdrew his nomination for Secretary of Labor under the realization that his confirmation was not likely.
Other high-level Cabinet positions remain vacant, with the departments being run by acting Secretaries. These include Agriculture Department where Sonny Perdue is nominated and the aforementioned Labor Department with Alex Acosta nominated. Of note, the Director and Deputy Director positions for the the Office of Science and Technology Policy have not been given appointments, as well as the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, two departments that are currently in limbo as to what their direction going forward is to be and what sort of funding they can expect.
On the Judiciary side of things, the President tapped Neil Gorsuch to fill the ninth seat on the Supreme Court. The position had been vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia eleven months prior and held open by the Republican Senatorial obstruction of then-President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, a widely respected judge that had been previously named specifically as a candidate that both parties would be able to confirm.
Neil Gorsuch’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings are scheduled to begin March 20, 2017. This committee consists of nine Democratic and eleven Republican Senators, and is expected to vote in favor of Gorsuch’s nomination to proceed to the full Senate for confirmation. For those Senators that oppose the Gorsuch nomination for any reason, be that for the judge’s positions or the principled matter of Merrick Garland not having been even considered in Committee, the threshold for a Supreme Court Justice is a simple majority with the option of a filibuster which would then move that threshold to a supermajority of 60 votes required for confirmation. The option to abolish the filibuster is on the table and encouraged by some, including the President, if the contentious vote comes down to party lines. With only 52 votes for the majority Republicans, peeling off the necessary 8 Democratic votes may be an insurmountable obstacle, and the chance to influence the balance of the Supreme Court for a generation may well spell doom for the filibuster, one of the last remaining tools for the minority party to defend against what they see as a tyranny of the majority.