Senate Confirms New DOT Inspector General, but Other Nominees Still Waiting

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate confirmed President Trump’s nominee to be Inspector General of the Department of Transportation by a party-line vote. But nine other Trump nominees to transportation positions remain unconfirmed and on the Senate Executive Calendar, with a handful of days left in this session of Congress.

Eric Soskin, the IG nominee, had an interesting path to confirmation. IG nominations get referred to two separate Senate committees – the panel with general jurisdiction over that department, and then the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which wrote the Inspector Generals Act.

In this case, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved Soskin’s nomination on September 16 by a party-line vote. (Soskin’s committee questionnaire is here and his answers for the record after his hearing are here and here.) HSGA then had 25 calendar days to act on the nomination, and having not done so, the panel was discharged automatically on October 26, and Soskin’s nomination was placed on the Executive Calendar.

On Thursday, December 17, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took up the Soskin nomination on the Senate floor and filed cloture to shut off debate. That motion “ripened” for a vote during the weekend session on Saturday the 19th – but a lot of Republican Senators skipped the Saturday session, while the only Democrat who was out of town was Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA). So the cloture petition failed by a vote of 40 yeas, 47 nays (McConnell had to switch his vote to “no” in order to be on the winning side and thus preserve his right to ask to reconsider the vote later, when more Republicans were around).

Then yesterday, when more Senators were around and waiting for the House to finish the multi-trillion-dollar year-end funding bill and possibly allow the Senate to finish its annual business, McConnell asked to reconsider the cloture vote. This time, cloture was invoked by a vote of 48 to 44, and two hours later, the Senate confirmed Soskin’s nomination by a completely party-line vote of 48 to 47.

IG appointments are extra-sensitive in the Senate because, per the Inspector General Act (as codified at 5a U.S.C. 3), a Cabinet Secretary or other office head can’t fire their IG, and can’t “prevent or prohibit the Inspector General from initiating, carrying out, or completing any audit or investigation.” IG’s are generally supposed to serve until they choose to retire, but the law does provide that an IG “may be removed from office by the President” after the President provides 30-day written notice to Congress.

The confirmation of Soskin leaves nine other transportation-related nominations still pending on the Executive Calendar. The Senate could, in theory, act on any of these nominations between now and noon on January 3, at which point they will all be returned to the President when the current Congress ends. (In theory, President Trump can make new nominations starting January 3. Normally, the Senate would not consider nominations made by an outgoing President on that kind of a timeframe, but we left “normal” behind some time ago.)

Three of the nominations are to Department of Transportation positions where the nominee, if confirmed, would have to tender their resignation on January 20, for President-elect Biden to accept or not:

  • Joel Szabat, to be Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy
  • Finch Fulton, to be Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Transportation Policy
  • Diana Furtchgott-Roth, to be Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Research and Technology

Then there are six nominees for vacant positions on the Amtrak Board of Directors for multi-year terms of varying lengths. Senate tradition has been to consider nominees to such boards only when paired (one Republican and one Democrat at at time, moving together in the same unanimous consent request). Those nominees are:

  • Rick Dearborn (R)
  • Joe Gruters (R)
  • Todd Rokita (R)
  • Lynn Westmoreland (R)
  • Sarah Feinberg (D)
  • Chris Koos (D)

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