How Is a Cabinet Secretary Confirmed?

There are four steps to confirming a President’s selection for a cabinet secretary. What are they?

Leslie Gold
3-minute read

The President’s Cabinet includes the heads of the following departments: Secretary of Defense, State, Labor, Commerce, Education, Homeland Security, Energy, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Transportation, Agriculture, Treasury, Environmental Protection, Office of Management and Budget, Trade, Small Business Administration, and the Attorney General. In total, there are 15 Cabinet members.

All of a President’s cabinet secretaries need Senate approval, except the White House Chief of Staff. Unlike an agency head, the Chief of Staff does not have duties outside the White House, so that position is considered White House staff, which serve entirely at the discretion of the president. The same is true for Press Secretary, White House Counsel, and Communications Director.

The President’s closest group of advisors usually includes the list above, plus the Vice President, the Chief of Staff, and the US Ambassador to the United Nations.

Step #1: Selection

The President or President-Elect chooses his or her nominees for each cabinet position. Cabinet secretaries should have the educational background or experience, whether government or private sector, relevant to their position. The only other requirement is that the President or President Elect simply wants you to serve in the position. Cabinet posts must be approved by the Senate upon hiring, but not firing. A Cabinet secretary can be dismissed by the President at any time. All posts serve “at the pleasure of the President.”

Step #2: Vetting

Once selected, background checks on the nominee begin. Investigations are conducted by the FBI, the IRS, and the Office of Government Ethics. The nominee submits financial disclosure forms and answers questionnaires about ties to foreign governments to assist with the vetting process. The goal of the vetting is to make sure nominees are not secret spies of foreign governments or criminals. This is also when potential conflict of interest issues are raised.

Step #3: Referral to Senate Committees

The nomination is given to the relevant Senate Committee. For instance, the Secretary of Treasury is reviewed by the Senate Finance Committee, and the Secretary of Defense is reviewed by the Senate Armed Services Committee. The committee reviews the nominee’s credentials and addresses any conflicts of interest. Normally this includes the nominee marching up to Capitol Hill to meet with the head of the committee or all the members and submit themselves to questioning. Practically speaking, this is where the committee decides whether they can work productively with the nominee on policy and relevant issues. The Senate Committee then votes to move the nomination to the full Senate floor for a vote. This step is critical: for a nominee to be considered for the job they must be referred to the full Senate by the committee.

Step #4: Senate Vote

Once clearing the committee, the nominee’s name then moves to the full Senate floor for a vote. Senators may have policy disputes or make public statements for or against a nominee but, historically, most Senators recognize that the President gets to pick his cabinet. Often there is grandstanding and showboating by both supporters and detractors of the nominee during step three and four, especially if there is a high level of public interest in the cabinet post.

Until 2013, a 60 vote majority was required to confirm a nominee, forcing some bi-partisan support. Democrats, who were a majority in the Senate at that time, changed this rule so that only a simple majority of 51 votes was needed to confirm a cabinet post. This change virtually guarantees that the President or President-Elect will get their choice confirmed if their party is the majority party in the Senate. 


Leslie Gold is a radio talk show host, entreprenuer and communicator. She has been a recurring guest host on the Fox News Radio Network, discussing government, politics and it’s effect on commerce and individual rights for the last 6 years. Prior to that she headlined the highly rated “The Radiochick Show” in NYC and syndicated markets for 10 years. She is a multiple industry award winner and has been recognized and one of the top radio hosts in the U.S.  Leslie has also been seen as a guest commentator on CNN, Fox News, Fox Business News, MSNBC, Good Day NY and ABC television. Leslie holds her MBA from the Harvard Business School and graduated from Syracuse University with an undergraduate degree in management.