Tures: Is Trump really facing historic opposition to cabinet?

Published 7:51 pm Wednesday, February 15, 2017



President Donald Trump tweeted “It is a disgrace that my full cabinet is still not in place, the longest such delay in the history of our country.” But is that really the case? To determine this, I compare votes opposing cabinet nominees to what President Obama and other recent chief executives faced, as well as how long it took each president to get their cabinet in place.


When I was a college student, I got a chance to attend a lecture by, and later meet, Judge Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan’s nominee for the Supreme Court who was defeated for confirmation in the late 1980s. It got me thinking about presidents and whether their nominees are confirmed by the Senate.


Anthony Zurcher with the BBC looks at just this issue. First, on the subject of “no” votes, Obama’s cabinet nominees faced more than 400 “No” votes. By comparison Trump has faced only about 100 “No” votes for his nominees. He’s still got some more cabinet officers to go before the Senate, but his most controversial ones (Sessions and DeVos) have already had their votes. Others have sailed through.  Unless there is a major set of scandals, he is unlikely to break Obama’s record for historic cabinet opposition.


For the record, George W. Bush had more than 150 votes against his nominees, followed by Reagan (about 125) and Nixon (about 110).


Bush, who also lost the popular vote en route to the presidency and faced a 50-50 Senate, had his cabinet picked within weeks. Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush had their cabinet read by mid-March, but Barack Obama didn’t have his cabinet fully confirmed until the end of April, according to that BBC report. As of the writing of this column, it is mid-February, so Trump has a long way to go to catch up with obstruction to Obama’s cabinet.


And that doesn’t even count the cabinet replacements, who had to wait months during the Obama Administration for a vote. And for obstruction, ask Judge Merrick Garland what it’s like to wait a year, and not even get a hearing, much less a vote. I bet that doesn’t happen to Neil Gorsuch.


The Wall Street Journal also agrees with the BBC report, finding that Trump’s cabinet picks are on pace with Reagan’s and Clinton’s waiting period.


I’m sure you are thinking this is nothing like the good old days of the Founding Fathers, when cabinet nominations just sailed through Congress. Think again.  Writing in the Harvard Law Review, Henry Paul Monaghan describes how President George Washington’s second Chief Justice nominee was not only a member of the original Constitution Convention, but an Associate Supreme Court Justice and acting Chief Justice, seeking a full-time appointment. But he was defeated because he didn’t like the Jay Treaty.


“Indeed, in the first 105 years of American constitutional history, almost one-fourth of the nominees (20 out of 81) failed to win confirmation; others were confirmed only after intense controversy,” Monaghan write.  We tend to forget that this was the era of Burr-Hamilton duels, the bitter 1800 election, and the Jefferson-Adams silent treatment days.


As conservative Washington Times columnist Bruce Fein, a Reaganite, wrote “Alexander Hamilton described the Senate confirmation power as ‘an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President’ and explained that it would deter ‘the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity.” That seems to be the route that the Senate is going, whether led by Republicans or Democrats.









John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu.