Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Politics & Government

#AskCokie: How Cabinet Members Get Confirmed


We are in the season of confirmation hearings. The new president's Cabinet picks get vetted, and then they get to sit through sometimes hours and hours of questioning on Capitol Hill as legislators try to decide if they are right for the job. It can be an arduous process any way you cut it, but there have been some complaints from the Trump administration this year that Democrats are slowing the process down. So we've been gathering up your questions about how all this works, and we're going to put those questions to commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. It is part of our regular segment aptly titled Ask Cokie. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: (Laughter) Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right, let's play our first question. Here we go.

ROB CANARY: Hey, Cokie, Rob Canary (ph) here from windy Philadelphia. I follow the news carefully while I'm in my cab. Could you give a refresher on when, where and how filibusters get used there, particularly as a method of opposition to Cabinet nominees?

MARTIN: Good question, OK.

ROBERTS: It is a good question. Well, Rob, the Democrats really put themselves in a box on this one because they decided when they were in control of the Senate that they didn't like the fact that Republicans were filibustering nominees, both for the executive branch and for the judicial branch. And so they exercised what was called the nuclear option, where they got rid of the filibuster for appointments to everything but the Supreme Court. They are now in a position where they can't filibuster any of these nominees, so there's really not much of a threat of defeating any of these Cabinet appointees even though some of them have raised serious concerns, both about their policies and about their personal dealings.

MARTIN: OK. So unless there's some huge unexpected defection, these people are going to get through. So what are these hearings for then, Cokie? Is it just theater? Is it just an opportunity for Democrats to kind of get on the record on certain issues?

ROBERTS: Well, the Democrats definitely want to score some points, but it does also put the nominees on the record. And that's especially important when you have a president who doesn't have a record on voting on lots of different issues and been somewhat contradictory in the course of the campaign. So for instance, with the Secretary of State - Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis, they seemingly departed from some of what President Trump had said during the campaign, so that's instructive. It's also a chance to question the records of the nominees themselves, and several of those are very controversial.

MARTIN: All right, let's get to our next question here.

NICOLE BOUDREAU: Hi, my name is Nicole Boudreau. I'm calling from Houston, and I was wondering if hiring undocumented workers has been an issue for disqualifying nominees in the past, if that would be an issue this time around?

MARTIN: What do you think, Cokie?

ROBERTS: Well, there have been people who have withdrawn their nominations because they either haven't paid social security taxes or have had people working for them who were not documented or didn't pay certain taxes. Those were all Democrats, and the Democrats thought that that was a political hazard, and so the nominees withdrew. The Republicans don't seem to have been concerned about a couple of nominees who didn't pay Social Security taxes or had other tax problems. But, look, the Democrats were dealing when the filibuster was still in place, and they knew that Republicans could probably block their nominees.

MARTIN: Like we've been talking about, Cokie, you said these nominees are likely to all get confirmed, but a lot of our listeners wanted to know about those who end up getting turned down by the Senate. Does that happen often?

ROBERTS: Very, very, very seldom. Only nine in all of our history, though one was rejected three times in the same day...


ROBERTS: ...John Tyler's pick for Treasury secretary. But the first one rejected...

MARTIN: That's a self-esteem hit (laughter).

ROBERTS: I know, that was a problem. But the first one was Roger B. Taney as secretary of the Treasury in 1834 under Jackson, and he then went on to famously become a Supreme Court chief who wrote the Dred Scott decision. The last was John Tower, and that was quite remarkable because he was a former senator, and the Senate defeated him in 1989. They didn't like him a lot. But the Senate has readily rejected other appointments from George Washington on, but the Cabinet they have pretty much felt that a president gets to pick his Cabinet.

MARTIN: Commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. She joins us Wednesdays to answer your questions about how Washington works. Tweet us your questions @morningedition with the hashtag #AskCokie, or you can email us - Thanks, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Good to be with you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.