Presidential Appointments Requiring Senate Approval

Senate hearing
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What a compliment! The President of the United States has named you to fill a top-level government position, maybe even a Cabinet-level job. Well, enjoy a glass of bubbly and take some slaps on the back, but don't sell the house and call the movers just yet. The president may want you, but unless you also win the approval of the U.S. Senate, it's back to the shoe store on Monday for you.

Across the federal government, nearly 1,200 executive-level jobs may be filled only by individuals appointed by the president and approved by a simple majority vote of the Senate.

For new incoming presidents, filling many, if not most, of these vacated positions as quickly as possible represents a major part of their presidential transition process, as well as taking a significant portion of time throughout the remainder of their terms.

What Kind of Jobs are These?

According to a Congressional Research Service report, these presidentially-appointed positions requiring Senate approval can be categorized as follows:

  • Secretaries of the 15 Cabinet agencies, deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, and assistant secretaries, and general counsels of those agencies: Over 350 positions
  • Justices of the Supreme Court: 9 positions (Supreme Court justices serve for life subject to death, retirement, resignation or impeachment.)
  • Certain jobs in the independent, non-regulatory executive branch agencies, like NASA and the National Science Foundation: Over 120 positions
  • Director positions in the regulatory agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Aviation Administration: Over 130 positions
  • U.S. Attorneys and U.S. Marshals: About 200 positions
  • Ambassadors to foreign nations: Over 150 positions
  • Presidential appointments to part-time positions, like the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System: Over 160 positions

Politics Can Be a Problem

Certainly, the fact that these positions require the approval of the Senate poses the possibility that partisan politics may play a critical role in the presidential appointment process.

Especially during times when one political party controls the White House and another party holds a majority in the Senate, as was the case during the second term of President Barak Obama, Senators of the opposition party are more likely to try to delay or reject the president’s nominees.

But There are ‘Privileged’ Nominations

Hoping to avoid those political pitfalls and delays in the presidential nominee approval process, the Senate, on June 29, 2011, adopted Senate Resolution 116, which established a special expedited procedure governing Senate consideration of certain lower-level presidential nominations. Under the resolution, over 40 specific presidential nominations—mostly assistant department secretaries and members of various boards and commissions—bypass the Senate subcommittee approval process. Instead, the nominations are sent to the chairpersons of the appropriate Senate committees under the heading, “Privileged Nominations – Information Requested.” Once the committees’ staffs have verified that the “appropriate biographical and financial questionnaires have been received” from the nominee, the nominations are considered by the full Senate.

In sponsoring Senate Resolution 116, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) stated his view that because the nominations were for “noncontroversial positions,” they should be confirmed on the floor of the Senate by “unanimous consent”—meaning they are all approved at the same time by a single voice vote. However, under the rules governing unanimous consent items, any Senator, for himself or herself or on the behalf of another Senator, can direct that any particular “privileged” nominee be referred to Senate committee and considered in the usual fashion.

Recess Appointments: The Presidents’ End Run

Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives presidents a way to at least temporarily bypass the Senate in making presidential appointments.

Specifically, the third clause of Article II, Section 2 grants the president the power to “fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.”

The courts have held that this means that during times the Senate is in a recess, the president can make appointments without the need for Senate approval. However, the appointee must be approved by the Senate by the end of the next session of Congress, or when the position becomes vacant again.

While the Constitution does not address the issue, the Supreme Court in its 2014 decision in the case of National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning ruled that the Senate must be in recess for at least three consecutive days before the president can make recess appointments.

This process, popularly known as “recess appointments,” is often highly controversial.

In an attempt to prevent recess appointments, the minority party in the Senate often holds “pro forma” sessions during recesses lasting longer than three days. While no legislative business is conducted in a pro forma session, they ensure that Congress is not officially adjourned, thus blocking the president from making recess appointments.

Presidentially Appointed Jobs With No Senate Needed

If you really want to work “at the pleasure of the president,” but don’t want to have to face the scrutiny of the U.S. Senate, there are more than 320 other high-level government jobs that the president can fill directly without the Senate’s consideration or approval.

The jobs, known as PA, or “Presidential Appointment” jobs pay from about $99,628 to about $180,000 per year and offer full federal employee benefits, according to the Government Accountability Office. 

The Plum Book

The Plum Book, officially the United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions, lists all presidentially appointed jobs within the federal government. Published every four years after a presidential election, the Plum Book lists the over 9,000 potential civil service leadership and support positions in the Legislative and Executive branches of the federal government that may be subject to presidential appointment. In practice, the Plum Book is best used as a snapshot of presidentially appointed positions within the federal government at the time of publishing.

In considering the jobs listed in the Plum Book, the U.S. General Services Agency warns that the duties of many such presidentially appointed jobs require advocacy of Administration policies and programs and usually demand a close and confidential working relationship with the agency head or other key officials.

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Longley, Robert. "Presidential Appointments Requiring Senate Approval." ThoughtCo, Jun. 3, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, June 3). Presidential Appointments Requiring Senate Approval. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Presidential Appointments Requiring Senate Approval." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).

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