Five tips for getting through the Senate confirmation process

September 25, 2020

Editorial credit: Katherine Welles / Shutterstock.com

By Bruce Andrews

This post is part of the Partnership’s Ready to Serve series. Ready to Serve is a centralized resource for people who aspire to serve in a presidential administration as a political appointee.

The opportunity to serve in a presidentially-appointed position in the federal government is a unique privilege and honor. For some positions, this means nominees must traverse the difficult Senate confirmation process before they can take office.

The confirmation process can be one of the biggest challenges a nominee will face in their lifetime. The process puts the fate of a highly accomplished individual in the hands of a Senate committee and a small group of staff, followed by the full Senate for a vote. Rarely do nominees depend so heavily on the judgment of others.

I had the opportunity to work on several sides of the process— first overseeing nominations for the Senate Commerce Committee as the general counsel, then helping nominees navigate the process as chief of staff of the Commerce Department, and finally working on my own nomination to be deputy secretary of Commerce. Here’s some advice for navigating the process.

Tip 1: Be honest

Nominees rarely know how intrusive the process will be and how deeply the background check and the committee will get to know them. In my experience, it is most important to be fully transparent and honest. It is always better to disclose everything, even embarrassing information, rather than be seen as untruthful or misleading.

Tip 2: Trust your team

Remember that confirmation is a team sport! Nominees need champions to build support and to work with potential critics.

The good news is that nominees have a confirmation team to help them. Trust the team. They are experts and their job is to help get the nominee confirmed. They are selected for their understanding of the process and have many resources to draw from.

Tip 3: Think about relationships

Prior to confirmation, nominees should catalogue their relationships and identify third party validators. 

When thinking about relationships, some key questions to ask include:

  • Which senators do you know?
  • Do you have friends who know key senators?
  • Do you have people who can vouch for the nominee? 
  • Can your home state senators help?

When I went through confirmation, I thought I would be fine with Democrats, but wanted to strengthen my support among Republicans. I was fortunate to have a group of well-connected Republicans who served as my “Shadow Confirmation Team.” They enthusiastically helped me by reaching out to key Republican senators, committee and leadership staff. Not everyone is as fortunate to have that kind of assistance, but all nominees will benefit from examining their own networks for potential help.

A crucial step in the process involves meetings with members of the Senate committee that has jurisdiction over the position you are seeking. These meetings may be with senators or their senior staff. They are the best way for nominees to introduce themselves, learn about the important issues from each committee member and earn their support.

Tip 4: Remember the hearing is part interview and part political theater

Next, the confirmation hearing will be scheduled. The hearing is not just an opportunity for the nominee to answer questions, but also for senators to impress on the nominee what they see as most important and show their constituents they are fighting for them. If senators want to spend three of their allotted five minutes talking about their positions, that is great. It is less time for the nominee to have to answer questions.

During my hearing, one senator asked me to come meet the fishermen in her state. I first suggested they meet with the regional official as instructed by my confirmation team. She then asked a second time, and I repeated the crafted response. On the third time she pressed me, I finally agreed to visit her state. (After the hearing, my eight-year-old daughter asked why I didn’t just agree when she asked in the first place.) After I was confirmed, my team reached out to her office to schedule a trip to meet with the fishermen, but her office never followed up.

Tip 5: Only answer the question that is asked

Many nominees want to show how smart they are. The most important thing is to listen to what the committee members are asking, and do not go beyond the question. Many nominees get in trouble by straying off topic.

I will never forget one hearing I staffed when a nominee violated this rule and tried to answer questions that were not asked to show the breadth of his knowledge. His responses raised concerns from several senators and led to an entirely new set of tougher questions. No one should want to be that nominee.

The confirmation process is not always easy, but it is a time-honored part of our democracy.  Serving your country is an incredibly rewarding experience, but it is important to respect the crucial role of the Senate in that process, and preparing wisely will increase the chance for a successful confirmation.

Bruce Andrews is managing partner at SoftBank Group and a former deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Commerce. He also served as general counsel to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.