A Rare Thing Indeed

Yesterday on Twitter I noted that the last time a top four cabinet appointee was rejected by the Senate was in 1989, with recently retired Sen. John Tower. President George H.W. Bush nominated Tower for Secretary of Defense and he was rejected by the Senate on a 53-47 vote. Notably, the Democrats controlled the Senate in 1989 and Tower and Bush both came from Texas.For those who don’t remember those days the reasons for the defeat were a mix of heavy drinking, ‘womanizing’ (sort of a dated term, I think) and a lot of his colleagues just not liking him. The second pick was Dick Cheney, then a member of the House leadership. Unknown at the time, the Persian Gulf War was just around the corner. And this turned out to be a hugely consequential choice, with reverberations down to the present.

Point being, it’s been some time since a President’s pick has actually been voted down by the Senate. But I’m surprised to see just how comparatively rare this is over the entire course of American history.

Here’s a list from the Senate website of all the cabinet nomination defeats over all of US history. It also includes the list of those who were withdrawn from consideration or never got a vote.

According to the list (and it’s the official Senate website so I figure they’d know) cabinet nominees have only been rejected 9 times in all of US history under the constitution. And 4 of those 9 came in one concentrated burst of fail from one President, John Tyler in 1843-44. Notably, Tyler was never elected in his own right but acceded to the office after William Henry Harrison died shortly after being elected in 1840. So he had problems from the start and basically didn’t have the support of a national party.

But here’s what surprised me even more. We know that in many cases when a nomination is dying the President just pulls it to avoid the defeat. Well, it turned out this hasn’t happened very much either. It happened most recently with Tom Daschle in 2008/09 and before that to Bernie Kerik in 2004 (good memories). But it only happened 10 other times in all of American history.

To be clear, I don’t think this necessarily tells us anything about Hagel’s chances. It’s notable that despite only 12 withdrawals in all of US history — half are in the last 20 years, 3 for Clinton, 2 for Bush and 1 for Obama.

Still, I’m just surprised to see how rare both have been in all of our history.