Presidential Appointments and the "Advice and Consent" of the Senate

Depiction of the Senate's impeachment proceedings in 1868 Depiction of the Senate's impeachment proceedings in 1868 (click for source)

Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution allows the President the power to appoint judges and Cabinet members with the "Advice and Consent" of the Senate. What this means in practice is that the Senate must vote to confirm any appointments that the President makes in certain areas. For Cabinet and judicial appointments a simple majority vote is needed. During the Reconstruction Era, the Senate tried to assert its power to prevent the President from removing Cabinet members without the Senate's consent. This led to a showdown between the Senate and President Andrew Johnson, in 1868, that nearly led to Johnson's removal from office. However, it is now an established principle that Cabinet members serve at the pleasure of the President.

Andrew Johnson disagreed with most of the Reconstruction legislation passed by Congress in 1867. Specifically, he vetoed the Military Reconstruction Acts which set up five military districts in the South, and as President he had the power to enforce these acts half-heartedly and undermine their purpose. Foreseeing this, the Congress had also passed a Tenure of Office Act in 1867, forbidding the removal of any Cabinet member without the consent of the Senate. It was written to protect Edward Stanton, who as Secretary of War supported the Reconstruction Acts. Johnson attempted to remove him anyways. In an 1868 trial Johnson was impeached by the House, and came within one vote of being removed from office by the Senate. Unpopular as Johnson was, most Americans saw the impeachment as overreach by the Radical Republicans. The Tenure of Office Act was repealed in 1887, and the Supreme Court has since confirmed the President's to remove Cabinet officials without Senatorial interference.

For appointments to the Supreme Court (and other federal courts), justices are confirmed not for the term of a President, but for life. The Senate has used its power to block judicial appointments on many occasions (i.e., it has withheld its "consent" of the appointment). Ronald Reagan had to put forward three nominations before he could fill a vacant Supreme Court seat in 1987. Reagan first attempted to put forward Robert Bork as a justice, but Bork was politically unacceptable to a majority of the Senate. His legal views were very conservative and he had also gained some notoriety serving under Richard Nixon. For example, Bork could find no basis for a right to privacy in the Constitution and he had fired a special prosecutor who was investigating the Watergate case. He was almost unanimously opposed by Senate Democrats and a nationwide campaign was organized to oppose his confirmation, which narrowly failed. Reagan then nominated a judge named Douglas Ginsburg, but it became known that Ginsburg had smoked marijuana well into his adulthood, and he withdrew his nomination on that basis. Finally, Reagan got a more moderate justice confirmed with his third nomination. Anthony Kennedy's jurisprudence on the Court would thereafter prove frustrating to conservatives.

The confirmation process is one of the checks and balances that allow the Legislative branch to constrain the Executive branch. Yet the days of the Tenure of Office Act are far in the past. Most modern Presidents have kept a steady turnover in the Cabinet, both from disagreements and from members' desires to take other jobs. For instance, Elaine Chao was the only Cabinet Secretary to serve the entire eight years of the George W. Bush Administration. It is close to universally accepted that the right of the President to dismiss Cabinet members without oversight strikes a proper balance between the power of the Executive and Legislative branch.

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