It used to be common for all of a president’s Cabinet nominees to reach the Senate floor and be confirmed by at least 80 yea votes out of 100. But rising polarization, along with a handful of divisive nominees, has led to large blocs of opposing senators casting nay votes on Cabinet nominations starting in the early 2000s.
And this year, we’re seeing a continuation of that polarization, with a large group of Democrats saying they’ll oppose several of President Donald Trump’s nominees. That’s nothing new. However, what is different are the scant public service résumés of Trump’s nominees, including Betsy DeVos, who was tapped to be education secretary. In fact, Democrats are holding the floor for a 24-hour talkathon to oppose DeVos’s nomination.
This kind of staunch and robust opposition to certain nominees started during George W. Bush’s first term, notably with most Democrats refusing to support attorney general nominee John Ashcroft because of his record on civil rights. (As Missouri’s attorney general, he was opposed to policies that allowed schools to desegregate.) And it only accelerated during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Recently, opposition parties have held up key picks for political reasons
In the past, most nominees were confirmed without much opposition on the Senate floor. In fact, before George W. Bush, one of the most contentious Cabinet votes was in 1989, when the Senate rejected George H.W. Bush’s first choice for defense secretary, John G. Tower. But that was because of potential conflicts of interest and concerns about his personal life; all of Bush’s other nominees were confirmed by wide margins.
Fast-forward a decade, and increasingly we see Cabinet nominees who were confirmed by margins of fewer than 30 votes, and opposition largely along political lines:
The political polarization that caused these smaller confirmation margins is best illustrated by Obama’s 2013 nomination of Tom Perez for labor secretary. Despite no ethical or personal red flags against him, the Senate voted perfectly along party lines. The 54 Democratic senators voted to confirm; the 46 Republican senators voted nay.
Among Trump’s six confirmed Cabinet members, the tightest votes have been for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (a margin of 13 votes) and CIA Director Mike Pompeo (34 votes). And at this rate, it’s very possible DeVos ends up being the Cabinet member confirmed by the narrowest margin ever.
Attorney general has always been a closer vote
In the past 40 years, the most contentious Cabinet post has been attorney general. Even before Ashcroft, confirmation of Reagan’s second nominee, Edwin Meese III, was delayed 13 months and faced fierce opposition from Democrats because of ethical concerns. President Obama’s two nominees, Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder, faced opposition for political reasons.
And Trump’s nominee, Jeff Sessions, is expected to continue that trend and receive a number of nay votes from Democrats, who are concerned with his civil rights record.
The opposition Trump faces, versus what Obama and Bush faced
Both Obama and Bush nominated largely mainstream civil servants with many years of government service. Any lack of support for their nominees was usually along political lines, and not because the candidates knew little to nothing about the department they were about to lead.
Trump, however, has picked several people who have little or no experience in government. That includes DeVos, who was asked during her Senate hearing about a longstanding discussion in education — about whether students should be measured on how much they know or how much they grow — and failed to understand the question. Her lack of experience, both in government and with the public school system, contributed to her becoming among the least likely of Trump’s nominees to be confirmed, Vox’s Libby Nelson writes.
DeVos is among six Trump nominees who lack any government experience, according to a recent report by the American Enterprise Institute. The others are Ben Carson for housing and urban development secretary, Steven Mnuchin for Treasury secretary, Rex Tillerson for secretary of state, Andrew Puzder for labor secretary, and Linda McMahon as the head of the Small Business Administration.
And though Tillerson was confirmed 56-43, the overall portrait is one of a group of people who haven’t spent much time in public service: