Obstruction and the Politics of Civilian Nominations

Published date01 May 2020
Date01 May 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(3) 414 –421
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X19870995
The confirmation process for presidential nominees has
grown quite acrimonious in recent decades. The U.S. Senate
has regularly been criticized by presidents, critics, and pun-
dits alike for its plodding process that has resulted in long
delays in considering nominations and scores of unfilled
vacancies across numerous areas of the federal government.
Although the process has been reformed on a number of
occasions, few would describe it as efficient (Bond, Fleisher,
& Krutz, 2009; Peters, 2013).
Merrick Garland’s nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court
of Appeals in 1995 illustrates many of the obstacles that
presidential nominees face in the Senate. Garland’s nomina-
tion was reported favorably by the Senate Judiciary
Committee in late 1995, but was not brought to the floor dur-
ing the 104th Congress. Garland’s nomination was delayed
in part because a “hold” had been placed on it by Senators
Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, both Republicans from
North Carolina. Holds are not a formal Senate procedural
tactic, but rather are a private threat issued by a senator to his
or her party leader. In this case, Helms stated that he would
“object to any time agreement or unanimous consent request
with respect to consideration of the nomination of Merrick
B. Garland to be United States Circuit Judge for the District
of Columbia Circuit, calendar number 434.”1 These threat-
ened objections are often considered filibuster threats by
leaders, so nominees and measures that have a hold placed
on them rarely move until the hold is lifted. As such, many
observers have noted that holds can serve as a de facto veto
over a nominee or measure (Sinclair, 1989).
Although many have noted the importance of holds in
understanding how the Senate functions, our understanding of
the effects of holds are limited by lack of data. They are typi-
cally not part of the public record and are typically retained in
the leadership offices of the Senate. We were, however, able to
create a unique dataset on holds based on records found in the
personal papers of former Senator Robert J. Dole (R-KS). We
use these data to analyze how holds affect the nomination and
confirmation process. Specifically, we ask and answer two
questions: First, what pattern exists for holds on nominees?
Second, how do holds affect the disposition of nominees?
Senators may use holds in an attempt to permanently forestall
a nomination or to delay confirmation while they seek lever-
age on other matters before the Senate. Our data allow us to
examine the types of nominees held, confirmation rates, dura-
tion, and disposition methods for nominees targeted by holds
to address these questions. We find that nominees that are sub-
ject to holds face significant delays in the confirmation pro-
cess and are more likely to be subject to a roll call vote in the
Senate. However, we do not find evidence to suggest that
nominees subject to a hold fail at a higher rate than those who
are not subject to a hold.
870995APRXXX10.1177/1532673X19870995American Politics ResearchHoward and Roberts
1Auburn University at Montgomery, Montgomery, AL, USA
2The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Nicholas O. Howard, Department of Political Science and Public
Administration, Auburn University at Montgomery, P.O. Box 244023,
Montgomery, AL 36124-4023, USA.
Email: nicholas.howard@aum.edu
Obstruction and the Politics of
Civilian Nominations
Nicholas O. Howard1 and Jason M. Roberts2
Conflict over presidential nominations has grown more acrimonious in recent decades. Senators have increasingly exploited their
procedural prerogatives to block or delay nominations that they oppose. In this article, we utilize a newly collected dataset on
holds placed by Republican senators to explore the usage and effect of obstructive tactics on nominations in the 100th to 104th
Congresses (1987-1996). We find that nominees subject to a hold see a significant delay in disposition of their nomination, but we
do not find evidence that holds regularly prevent nominees from being confirmed by the Senate.
obstruction, nominations, senate, holds

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