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What’s the Hold Up on Senate Nominees?

The Senate always takes its time. On some level, this is by design to allow senators to sufficiently deliberate issues of national importance. But even by the Senate’s standards, the time it takes to confirm presidential nominees is becoming progressively slower, with the Senate “hold” being a key factor.

According to an analysis by the Partnership for Public Service, the time from nomination to confirmation has climbed steadily since the George W. Bush administration.

Senate Confirmations Historical Stats

Consequently, this results in presidents being increasingly hampered during their first year in office, a crucial time for staffing the government.

Senate Confirmations Graph

Holds—an informal practice in the Senate—contribute to the slowdown. A hold allows a senator to prevent a matter from receiving a floor vote by informing party leadership of his or her intent to block it. Holds are effective because much of the Senate’s business is accomplished through unanimous consent to deviate from the strictures of the chamber’s glacial rules. One member can accomplish a hold simply by threatening to withhold that consent.

Holds are meant to ensure senators are consulted on matters of importance to them and/or their constituents. A senator might place a hold to indicate opposition to a measure or nominee, or to encourage the measure’s sponsor or the White House to negotiate with them. Used sparingly, the practice can improve deliberation. Used maximally, holds can prevent the Senate from accomplishing routine business. Holds are almost always respected by leadership, so there is little to no chance of one being ignored.

One hold recently making headlines belongs to Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), who is blocking all Department of Defense nominations from moving forward with the goal of having the Pentagon reverse a policy regarding compensation for certain military personnel seeking abortions. In doing so, Sen. Tuberville has stalled civilian positions and high-ranking military nominations and promotions, including for the Marine Corps, which is without a Senate-confirmed leader.

Sen. Tuberville is not the only one using this tactic. Recently, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) announced that, because of the Department of Justice’s indictment of former President Donald Trump, he would put a hold on all DOJ nominees. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) announced a hold on Department of Energy nominations to pressure the Biden administration to produce an action plan for combating radioactive waste in St. Louis. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has a hold on the nominee for the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) recently released a two-month-long hold on State Department nominees over documents on the origins of COVID-19.

It’s not just Republicans. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced a hold on nominations to the Environmental Protection Agency to pressure the Biden administration to change policy. Democrats and Republicans also used holds during the Trump administration to slow or block nominees.

While holds have an impact on the Senate confirmations, they’re not the only thing hampering the process. The number of nominees that must receive Senate confirmation is another pain point with approximately 1,200 presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed (PAS) positions. This is in addition to the more than 65,000 military appointments the Senate deals with each two-year term and scores of judicial nominees. Despite attempts to reduce the number over the years, it has remained relatively constant: After reducing PAS positions by 163 in 2011, the current number is just one less than it was in 1996. More than a decade later, it may be time for the Senate to revisit the matter.

The volume of nominees compounds the lengthy confirmation process that nominees must go through. After a nomination is read on the Senate floor, the nominee typically receives committee consideration. Committees then have four options: they can report nominees as favorable, unfavorable, without recommendation, or can take no action at all.

After a nomination is reported to the full Senate, it can be scheduled for a floor vote. Even without a hold, the usual floor process for considering a nomination can take days or even a week to complete all the necessary steps. This is due to the rising occurrence of filibuster threats against nominations, which necessitates the Senate go through a process known as “cloture” to end debate. Holds only add to the time involved in processing nominees.

Past efforts to speed up the confirmation process have not been successful. In 2011, the Senate passed a resolution identifying 282 PAS positions that could automatically skip committee consideration unless a senator objects. While the idea was to help these “privileged” nominations move more quickly, it has had the opposite effect:

Confirmation Days Bar Graph

It now takes nearly twice as long for some of these privileged positions to be confirmed.

As things stand, the Senate has numerous nominees to consider while grappling with limited time for cloture motions and floor votes. This situation forces the Senate to make a hard choice: Do they let critical government positions go unfilled or do they stop their legislative work to ensure the government is staffed? Some frustrated senators have proposed rules changes to blunt the effect, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) proposal to allow en bloc consideration of up to 10 nominees at a time. The Senate would still have to spend considerable time to overcome a hold on the en bloc nominations, but the result is less time spent per nominee.

Tackling the Senate’s slow confirmation process is difficult. It would be impossible for the Senate to process all the nominations it receives without unanimous consent to speed things up. Senators are reluctant to forego their procedural prerogatives like holds and filibuster threats, which give them individual influence over government staffing and policy. Yet, these prerogatives are likely what primarily slows things down. In the absence of an agreement on rules changes, the Senate should revisit the total number of positions subject to Senate confirmation.

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