Are There Too Many Positions Requiring Senate Confirmation?

There are over 1,000 Executive Branch positions requiring Senate approval. That seems excessive.


In the light of yesterday’s seeming resolution over the confirmation of Executive Branch nominees, Brad Plumer wonders if we really need to have so many positions subject to the necessity of Senate confirmation:

Let’s start with the raw numbers: There are somewhere around 1,200 to 1,400 positions in the executive branch that require Senate confirmation, according toan estimate by the Congressional Research Service. That means several hundred nominees have to get scrutinized by the Senate each year.

This list includes all the obvious, major positions — like the head of the Environmental Protection Agency or the Secretary of Defense. It also includes ambassadors and justices to the Supreme Court. Virtually everyone agrees that it’s reasonable to have Senate oversight for these big, important jobs. That’s what the Constitution envisioned.

But the full list also includes plenty of assistants and deputies and administrators and positions hardly anyone has ever heard of. Does the Senate really need to confirm all 15 members of the National Council on Disability? Or the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator at the Office of Management and Budget? Does this make sense at a time when the Senate is taking longer and longer to confirm various nominees?

That’s a trickier question. Whenever Congress creates new executive-branch agencies and offices, it makes a determination about whether the positions within them require Senate confirmation or not. That’s all well within Congress’s rights under the Advice and Consent clause of the Constitution.

The reason that Congress has defaulted to making the positions of new agencies that it may create, of course, is that it allows that body to retain oversight control over the body itself from the very beginning by requiring that the Senate have a voice in determining who gets to staff those agencies. Ceding authority for appointment of new members to the President essentially means that the agency becomes a creature of the President. Take, for example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which yesterday’s agreement finally put at its officially confirmed head Richard Cordray, whom President Obama had appointed some two years ago only to see the nomination tied up in what was, in the end, Republican opposition to the very existence of the agency itself. Let’s say that Congress had decided from the start that the head of this Commission could be appointed by the President himself. This would essentially mean that a Republican President could appoint someone who would let the agency lie dormant for the entirety of his term and there’s very little that Congress could do about it. Now, one can make perfectly valid policy arguments against the CFPB and the broad powers it has been granted, but allowing a President us a unilateral appointment power to thwart Congressional intent would seem to be entirely improper. Therefore, Congress requires positions such as this to be confirmed by the Senate along with other Executive Branch, or quasi-Executive Branch, agency positions. Over time, the number of such positions has added up significantly. Leaving aside the institution issues currently gripping the Senate, the prospect of vetting and voting upon more than 1,000 Presidential appointees is no small matter requiring a significant expenditure of the Senate’s time.

As Plumer notes, there have been some solutions suggested to this perceived problem:

One, the Senate could speed up the pace of confirmations. This is exactly what Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell have been fighting about for the last few days. Reid claimed Republicans were bogging down nominees through filibusters in order to cripple agencies like the National Labor Relations Board. McConnell retorted that the Senate was confirming most nominees anyway and the system was ultimately working. That fight appears to be resolved for now.

Another possible option, however, would be to shrink the number of executive-branch nominees that need Senate confirmation in the first place. If Senate committees didn’t need to spend so much time on low-level positions, the logic goes, they could focus on the important jobs and confirm these nominees more quickly.

As it turns out, the Senate actually took a first crack at this question two years ago with the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011. That resolution ultimately reduced the total number of executive-branch positions needing approval by 163. It also identified another 272 positions that could now speed through the Senate fairly quickly, barring unusual circumstances.

Under the new arrangement, the Senate would continue to scrutinize the big jobs, like Secretary of Defense or all the top-level jobs at the Environmental Protection Agency. But lawmakers decided that they could probably do without confirming a slew of lower-level positions. Like, say, the Administrator of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation. Or the Assistant Administrator for Management at USAID. (You can see a longer list of positions that no longer need Senate approval on page 19 of this report.)

Some Senators suggested knocking more positions of the list, such as some of the more obscure of the Assistant and Deputy Secretary positions at the Cabinet Departments to start with but they couldn’t get a majority of the Senate to go along with them.  So, this means that there are still more than a thousand positions that require Senate confirmation, and plenty of opportunities for issues like the near “nuclear option” meltdown to occur in the future. Logically, of course, there ought to be a way to figure this out. For lower level appointments that don’t necessarily involve policy making, perhaps there are many that can be pared from the “requires Senate confirmation” list. Barring that, it would seem to make sense that there ought to be an agreement that these types of nominations can be fast-tracked in some way while the real attention is paid to the more important positions. The same could be said to many Ambassadorial appointments. Does the Senate really need to spend as much time scrutinizing the qualifications of the Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia, to just pick as an example, as it does to an Ambassadorial appointment to Russia, China, or any number of America’s most important allies? Of course not, and one gets the impression that the Senate already handles such appointments in this manner. They certainly do in the case of Judicial nominations, where District Court appointments are generally not given the same scrutiny as appointments to the Circuit Courts of Appeal and the persons nominated generally come from a list generated by the Senators of the state in which the vacancy is located that is submitted to the Executive Branch. This isn’t an argument for the Senate abandoning its obligations under the “advise and consent” clause, but it seems rather obvious that the list of positions subject to that clause is too long.

There is another solution, of course. Congress could eliminate many of the positions for which it is required to confirm nominees. Some could be eliminated outright, others could probably be folded into one of the Cabinet Departments. Of course, that’s an idea that makes far too much sense for the denizens of Capitol Hill to figure out.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. al-Ameda says:

    To borrow from Bill Maher, New Rule: There is simple majority-approval vote on all position nominations (excludes Supreme Court and Cabinet level nominations), and the minority party is given 6 peremptory challenges per year.

    Could that be worse than what Republicans are inflicting on the process now?

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    How else do you expect to be able to reward fund-raisers and donors?

  3. C. Clavin says:

    Republicans heard 12-1400 “positions”…and wanted to strictly limit any beyond straight missionary between a man and a woman…being the believers in small government that they are.

  4. Tony W says:

    @al-Ameda: I would add that failure to hold an up-or-down vote within 90 days automatically confirms the candidate

  5. michael reynolds says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Dammit, I hate when you beat me to it.

  6. walt moffett says:

    Yet somehow, the Senate manages to generally confirm uniformed service promotions to field grade rank in a reasonable time.

    Another semi cohorent thought is that if the work goes on, does this position really need to exist?

  7. stonetools says:

    @al-Ameda: @Tony W:

    +1 on the Al-Ameda/Tony W solution, except I wouldn’t even bother with the peremptory challenges. Don’t like the Administration’s choices? Win an election.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    1200-1400 positions need confirmation by the Senate???!!! WTF, how in the H-E-Double hockey stick does the government even manage to run in the transmission of one administration to the other???

    Oh, wait a minute, most of these positions don’t actually do anything.

  9. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I don’t understand, per the original article, how the confirmation process solves the potential problem of a President simply not advancing a candidate for a particular position. Is there a requirement in federal law that a vacancy must have a candidate announced within a specific time frame?

  10. rudderpedals says:

    Even 1,400 vacancies wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the cloture procedure was reversed. Minority obstruction could still happen but the objecting bloc should have to carry the burden of producing 2/5 votes to defeat cloture.

  11. Tyrell says:

    No, Congress should not have to appoint the chiefs of all of these agencies, including such as the Civil War Benefits Department or the Bureau of Zamboni Safety. The larger issue is there are entirely too many agencies. And that is just the ones we know about, not all of the secret ones that even Congress does not know exist. And you can bet the Air Force has a secret division to investigate ufo’s. See “Kecksburg, PA Crash Incident”. You will be amazed and probably scared after you read about what happened there.

  12. Tyrell says:

    This is interesting: “USDA orders disaster plan for magician’s rabbit” Washington Post, by David Fahrenthold. Another account of bureaucratic regulationitus gone to seed!! What we have are regulations piled on regulations with no one taking an overall look to see if they are effective and needed. Same thing for agencies, bureaus, and departments. Some are outdated and no longer needed. Some are just there to meddle and create problems (Dept. of “Education”). Most are political and are lining someone’s pockets through the government purchasing procedures, which is a byzantine maze if there ever was one, forms needed to fill out other forms that go through at least 12 desks!! It is just ridiculous and anyone from school teachers to generals can tell whoppers about the system. Every agency should be audited and analyzed every few years to find
    waste, fraud, and inefficiency. This should be done by independent companies, not politicians.
    Education and Washington: two opposites if there ever were.

  13. @Doug:

    The reason that Congress has defaulted to making the positions of new agencies that it may create, of course, is that it allows that body to retain oversight control over the body itself from the very beginning by requiring that the Senate have a voice in determining who gets to staff those agencies. Ceding authority for appointment of new members to the President essentially means that the agency becomes a creature of the President.

    Actually, the main oversight powers that Congress has over executive agencies are budgeting and legislating. Ever dollar spent by the federal government is ultimately controlled by the Congress and every action of the federal government is controlled by laws passed by Congress (save the specific actions derived from the constitution, and even those are mostly applied via legislation).

    The ability to say yes or no on a specific appointee (especially at lower levels) really doesn’t give Congress much much actual oversight power over the bureaucracies in question. Further, once appointed they serve at the pleasure of the President, not of the Congress (even if some could potentially be impeached, not that that is going to happen).

    I can understand confirmation as oversight in the case of judges. I can see, but am less convinced, about the need for the cabinet to be confirmed–since, as noted, there are lots of way to oversee the behavior of the executive if Congress really wants to do its job (which it frequently fails to do, I will grant). I see really no benefit to much for anyone for a thousand or more positions to require confirmation.

    Mostly this is faux oversight at best. (It is also easier than real oversight).

  14. C. Clavin says:

    You know…if you really want to talk about oversight…why aren’t you guys previewing the IRS hearing on Capitol Hill today?
    Issa has been trying his damndist to blow up scandals where there are none: Fast and Furious, Solyndra, Benghazi, Joe Sestak…the list is long. Today, if there is any justice, he will get his hat handed to him over the non-existent IRS scandal. This so-called Republican has been wasting the people’s time and money on witch-hunts and political theater.
    So yeah…let’s eliminate the Congressional approval on a bunch of positions. I’m all in favor of smart Government.
    But the smartest thing we could do is get partisan cowboys like Issa under control.

  15. archie says: