President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees are beginning to grace the hearing rooms of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, and they are likely to meet with plenty of opposition by Democratic senators and progressive activists. But most — if not all — of Trump’s picks will probably be confirmed. This year, for the first time, a new president’s Cabinet nominations can’t be filibustered, making Trump’s task much easier. And gaining Senate confirmation wasn’t that hard to begin with: Over the last 40 years, new presidents’ Cabinet picks have usually sailed through the confirmation process — even a majority of those who faced headwinds were still ultimately approved.
From 1977 to 2013, the last six incoming presidents — Jimmy Carter through Barack Obama — made 109 appointments to Cabinet-level positions.1 Just six failed: Five nominees withdrew, and one was voted down by the Senate. The Senate confirmed 103 during the same span, 93 of whom were unanimously approved or not seriously contested. Ten were confirmed in contested votes. (I’m defining “contested” as more than six nay votes — admittedly a somewhat arbitrary cutoff.) Including the one rejection, that means that, whenever there was genuine dissent over a floor vote, the nominee was confirmed anyway 10 times out of 11.
It has always been rare for the Senate to outright reject a Cabinet nomination. Only nine Cabinet appointees in all of U.S. history — by new presidents plus ones attempting to fill vacancies in the middle of their terms — have ever been voted down by the Senate. The most recent Senate veto came in 1989, when John Tower, President George H.W. Bush’s pick for secretary of defense, went down to defeat 53–47 amid revelations of alcohol abuse, womanizing and conflicts of interest. And that was with a hostile, Democratic-controlled Senate; the last same-party Senate to nix a president’s nominee did so in 1925.
More often, a controversial appointee is withdrawn preemptively by an executive branch that judges him or her not worth the fight ahead. President Bill Clinton rescinded attorney general pick Zoe Baird in 1993 after it was revealed Baird had employed two undocumented immigrants as housekeepers and had not paid Social Security taxes on their wages. In 2001, President George W. Bush withdrew secretary of labor pick Linda Chavez for a similar infraction: housing and financially supporting an undocumented woman from Guatemala.
President Obama’s confirmations were the rockiest in modern times, due, in some mix, to increased partisanship and poor vetting. Not one, but two, of Obama’s nominees for commerce secretary withdrew: first, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, whose administration was under federal investigation for pay-to-play allegations; second, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, who cited “irresolvable conflicts” with the Democratic president. Obama’s first health and human services nominee, Tom Daschle, also withdrew after revelations that he had failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes on income he had not reported. (Eventual Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner committed the same transgression, though in a smaller amount, and he was ultimately confirmed in a contested vote — one of four successful Obama appointments who encountered serious opposition.)
The common denominator? Cabinet nominations tend only to fail when dragged down by scandal or impropriety. Policy disagreement or extreme political views may lead to a contested vote — see Kathleen Sebelius or John Ashcroft for two recent examples — but they have not prevented eventual approval.
Trump’s Cabinet picks may well continue the recent pattern of more contested confirmation votes, which spiked under Obama. But with the Senate under Republican control, that probably won’t be enough to stop their confirmation. History suggests that anyone proceeding to a vote will almost certainly win it. Only a scandal big enough to force the famously unapologetic Trump to reverse himself and withdraw a nomination is likely to bring down any of his appointees.