The founding fathers originally intended that Congress, not the president, make all nominations. The Constitution’s “advise and consent” provision was a compromise between those who wanted Congress to do all the appointing and those who thought it should be the president’s job. We ended up giving the Senate only the power to say “yea” or “nay.”
In our young nation’s history, there have been 141 Supreme Court nominees; 27 of them, or 19 percent, were rejected or withdrawn. There have been some 700 Cabinet officers nominated, of which 4 percent have been rejected or withdrawn. Here are a few memorable nominations, from our nation’s first to some of its most contentious.
1789 The first presidential nomination was George Washington’s choice of William Short as minister to the Court of France — essentially an ambassador. John Jay, who had headed the Office of Foreign Affairs under the old Congress of the Confederation, hand-carried the nomination to the Senate. Some senators wanted Washington to appear before them to defend his nominee. Short was well known, a career diplomat who was Jefferson’s secretary in France, but the Senate, even at that early date, flexed its muscles. Washington, to his credit, refused. Short was confirmed by secret ballot two days later.
1831 When President Andrew Jackson nominated Sen. Martin Van Buren of New York to serve as minister to Great Britain, his Senate colleagues didn’t take kindly to the choice. Opponents described Van Buren as a schemer and a master manipulator as he waged internal warfare for control of the political machine encompassing all of New York, the Bucktails. Many senators took umbrage at his methods, which also upset the chamber’s hierarchy and Vice President John C. Calhoun. When Van Buren’s confirmation vote ended in a tie and Calhoun was called upon to break it, he voted no.
Jackson was so angry that his vice president had voted down his nominee that he ended up dropping Calhoun in the next convention and chose Van Buren as his vice president. Van Buren, of course, went on to become president in 1837.
1843 If you think Hagel has had a tough nomination battle, consider President John Tyler’s nomination of Caleb Cushing to be Treasury secretary. In those days, because the president’s term ended at the same time as Congress’s, he would go to Capitol Hill on the last days of the session and sit just off the Senate floor to submit nominations, sign bills and work out compromises with the chamber’s leadership.