An overview of the Senate nomination hearing process

An overview of the Senate nomination hearing process
Jan 21, 2021

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The Senate ag committee will question Tom Vilsack

By Diego Flammini
Staff Writer

All of President Biden’s 15 heads of executive departments must undergo the confirmation process before officially taking the reins at his or her specific federal agency.

Each Cabinet nominee will face questioning from the Senate committee related to the position he or she has been nominated for.

For Tom Vilsack, the president’s pick to lead the United States Department of Agriculture, he will face questioning from the committee on agriculture, nutrition, and forestry.

What does that process look like?

“All the committee members will have the opportunity to question Vilsack and make statements about his qualifications,” Ryan Bernstein, a senior policy advisor with McGuireWoods, an organization representing food and agribusiness interests, told

Bernstein is also a former chief of staff for North Dakota Senator John Hoeven and worked with members of the Senate on recent farm bills.

Questions typically range from broad issues to committee members bringing up topics specific to their state and asking the nominee to come to that state to experience the issue themselves, Bernstein said.

During the hearings, nominees also have an opportunity to lay out his or her plan, or the president’s ideas for the specific department.

“Vilsack can talk about what he wants to accomplish as the secretary of agriculture, President Biden wants to accomplish for agriculture and how Vilsack will execute that plan,” Bernstein said.

The Senate can vote on a nominee using one of two methods.

Members can do a voice vote for the nominee or come to a unanimous consent agreement where a vote isn’t necessary, and the nominee is confirmed.

In the event the Senate doesn’t confirm the nominee, the president will have to nominate someone else.

It’s unlikely the Senate rejects Vilsack as the secretary of agriculture, Bernstein said.

“When the Senate confirmed him in 2009, it was done by unanimous consent,” he said. “He was one of nine individuals who were confirmed on day one in 2009.”

The last time the Senate rejected a presidential Cabinet nominee occurred in 1989.

President George H.W. Bush nominated John Tower, a senator from Texas, to serve as the secretary of defense.

The Senate rejected Tower by a vote of 53 to 47 after investigations into “drunkenness, womanizing and sharing secret insights into U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations with defense contractors,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

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