This is the third of a three-part series on federal agency vacancies, nominations, and Senate confirmations.

As President Obama begins a new term in office, so too will a number of Cabinet secretaries and other high ranking Administration officials. While some opt to stay on for a second term, many choose to depart after four years (or perhaps might be asked to consider leaving). After considerable scrutiny and deliberation not only of qualifications but political considerations, the President makes his nominations. Administrations generally seek to appoint people whose nominations they believe will not be controversial and will sail through the confirmation process.  Although sailing through the confirmation process is something that just doesn’t happen that often anymore.  Just because a President feels that certain individuals are best suited for these roles does not guarantee that they will be appointed. Prior to assuming the helm of various departments and agencies, the nominees must be confirmed by the United States Senate. And just how does this process work?

Nominees for cabinet secretaries and other high ranking positions (CIA director, for example) are first vetted by the executive branch. Various issues are considered; conflicts of interest, adjudicated; and potentially embarrassing personal situations are identified. Once the President announces a choice for a position, the nomination is officially transmitted to the Senate where it is referred to the committee of jurisdiction for consideration. Typically, the nominee is required to provide certain background information to the committee and to appear before the committee at a confirmation hearing. The committee also requires the nominee to respond to a questionnaire designed to elicit information apart from that it receives from the executive branch.

The nominee typically arranges “courtesy calls” in advance of the hearing with all committee members. These meetings usually take place in private, outside the glare of the public spotlight and before the nominee formally appears at his or hear confirmation hearing. If a senator has concerns about the nomination he or she will typically raise them in this initial meeting and have the nominee respond informally. If the senate is satisfied with the response, the issue is not likely to be pursued at the hearing.

The confirmation process will typically address issues that have been identified in the course of this preliminary process. If the preliminary process did not identify issues of significance, the confirmation hearing will likely consist of opening statements by the members and nominee, followed by questions which often seem halfhearted and mechanical. While to the outside world, the committee may appear to be letting the nominee off the hook, a perfunctory hearing means that the committee has conducted a thorough inquiry and found nothing significant. On the other hand, if the preliminary inquiry identified issues, the hearing process will expand as necessary to flesh them out to the satisfaction of the members concerned.

Then there are the political considerations.  Sometimes a nomination hearing may prove to be contentious not because of anything that the nominee has done but because of some Senators may want to make a point on underlying issues.  For instance, we have had four acting heads of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) because the underlying issues regarding health care reform sunk nominees regardless of the nominees qualifications.

Following the confirmation hearing, the committee reports the nomination, usually with its recommendation, to the full Senate for confirmation or rejection by a simple majority. If the nominee is approved, he or she is sworn in and immediately begins their duties.  Stay tuned to see who gets appointed to what and how long it takes for confirmation…