It’s easy enough to say, as I did last week, that we should ask the Senate to block President-Elect Donald Trump’s EPA pick, on the grounds that Myron Ebell is a raging climate denier. But how, exactly, does one actually do it?
If you’re like me, you may have a vague idea of how these things work, but still have an overwhelming number of questions that sap your confidence when you try to get on the phone with elected officials. In the interests of giving us both courage, I’ve done some research that should clear up a few points.
There has been a lot in the news lately about Mr. Trump picking, or considering picking, a lot of people recently, and some of those picks are being contested. Some of these–cabinet positions and others–require Senate confirmation (these are called “presidential appointees with Senate confirmation,” or PAS), but others don’t. The transition team members do not require approval, nor do staffer positions like senior adviser, the position to which Steve Bannon has been appointed.
Now, Steve Bannon is a well-known racist and anti-Semite and his appointment has raised vociferous objections both within Congress and elsewhere, but there is little anyone can do because this is just Mr. Trump’s call to make. There are ways to apply political pressure to get Mr. Trump to change his mind. Besides petitions addressed to the President-elect himself, the Senate can hold one or more of Mr. Trump’s cabinet appointments hostage until Mr. Bannon is fired and replaced by someone better. You have the option of asking your senators to do just that, although personally I think that may be a waste of political capital. Your call.
But the head of the EPA is a PAS, as are several other key spots, and your senators are responsible to you for whom they approve and how and why. The electorate has a lot of leverage, here.
You can sign petitions, like this one, and this one, against Myron Ebell, but don’t rely on petitions alone. For one thing, petitions aren’t always delivered. There was a petition on the White House site against Mr. Ebell that had collected a lot of signatures but which the White House has simply taken down–that site is designed as a way to communicate with the current President, not the next one, and the current President cannot appear to resist the peaceful transfer of power in any way. Besides, petitions do not have half the impact of phone calls. You just need to know whom to call about what.
(There are actually well over a thousand PAS positions, most of which doubtless either get rubber stamped or left unfilled. Our energy needs to focus on the most important).
The Process in the Senate
The Senate confirmation process begins for each PAS with an investigation and vetting process within the executive branch. After that process chooses a nominee, the president sends written notification to the Senate, where the nomination is read on the Senate floor, assigned a number, and passed into a committee for discussion.
Which committee handles the nomination depends on the position. For example, anything within the US Department of Defense goes through the Senate Armed Services Committee. Some positions must go through more than one committee. You can find a list of which committees have jurisdiction over what, here.
Committees may conduct their own investigation of the nominee if they need additional information and, following discussion, can report to the Senate on the nominee favorably, unfavorably, or without recommendation. The committee also has the option to take no action at all. Committees do not have the authority to actually halt the nomination process, but the full Senate rarely acts against the recommendation of the committee.
The nomination for head of the EPA is handled by the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. I am unclear on whether the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works might have jurisdiction also–it looks like it might.
After the nomination passes out of committee, the Senate must unanimously agree to the date and time for the confirmation hearing. A single senator can stall the process by refusing to agree–I don’t know whether that is ever actually done deliberately. Once the hearing begins, debate can continue until the Senate votes to stop. That vote requires a super majority (two-thirds), but the actual confirmation vote is by simple majority (half plus one). The Senate may confirm, reject, or take no action on the nomination. Confirmations are sent to the President for signature. Any nominations left pending when the Senate goes on a recess of over 30 days automatically expire. The President may resubmit the nomination later.
So, to block a nomination, there are a couple of options: the relevant committee can report unfavorably on the nominee; the Senate as a whole can reject the nomination; or the entire process can be delayed until the next long recess by means of various obstructionist methods (filibuster, excessive investigation, arguing over scheduling, and possibly others).
All senators have a voice in the process, so call your senators and voice your opinion. However, it’s worth also calling the senators on the relevant committee–they might not listen to you if you’re not a constituent, but a large number of calls should still mean something. The membership of each committee is easy to look up online.
Now, the confirmation process won’t start until after the inauguration, but you can start calling senators now–except remember some current senate members will lose their seats come January. Strike them from your call list and call their successors once they take office. Remember, also that committee appointments do not automatically get passed down with the senate seat, so the person who beat a committee member in the election will not necessarily take that spot on the committee. You’ll just have to look it up when the time comes.
If all this sounds like a lot to look up, don’t worry–I’ve done some of the grunt-work for you. Notice that the names of both the committees I mentioned earlier are hyperlinks. Those links go to the websites of those committees, which list current committee membership–and each name on that site is in turn linked to that Senator’s website, which includes contact information. “Contact me” links on the site likely lead to email forms. You want phone numbers, so look up the senator’s office locations instead. If you are a constituent, call the office closest to where you are registered to vote–your call will have a bigger impact that way.
And I can tell you that nobody on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is leaving office this time. You can call all of them now. On the Committee on the Environment and Public Works (which may or may not have jurisdiction, remember), two are retiring, Republican David Vitter, and Democrat, Barbara Boxer. You can call everybody else now.
Since the nomination process hasn’t officially started yet, technically, there are no nominees. Myron Ebell is simply the likely nominee. Other names being discussed for the position are Robert E. Grady and Jeffrey Holmstead. I have not yet looked either of them up, but since Mr. Trump has been rather vocal about wanting to gut the EPA, it’s a safe bet that whomever he wants for the job should not have it.
There are other nominations also worth taking a look at, for both environmental reasons and otherwise. The Secretaries of the Interior (whose responsibilities include the National Park Service), of Agriculture, and of Commerce (whose responsibilities include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which carries out a lot of climate research), plus the US Trade Representative and the UN Ambassador all bear special attention and should not go to climate deniers.
You can find a list of appointees and potential nominees here. It is current as of this writing, though I don’t know how frequently it will be updated. Note that the list includes both PAS and non-PAS positions.
A Few Closing Words
First, if you hate using the telephone, you have my sympathy, but we really need to just do it this time. If the idea of calling a senator specifically worries you (and it does me!), take heart. You won’t talk to the senator personally–a staffer will write down what you are calling about and whether you are for or against, and if you got tongue-tied or awkward, that friendly staffer will never mention it to anyone. Seriously, staffers are, as a rule, helpful, friendly people who will do whatever they can to help you get your message through as long as you are friendly with them. And that’s true even when you’re calling to disagree with the senator in question. Seriously, staffers are cool people.
Second, since the push to block Myron Ebell and others is most likely going to be led by Democrats, some people may cry foul, saying that the Democrats didn’t like it when Republicans blocked President Obama’s nominations. I want to be very clear that I am not advocating that sort of blockage. The Republican leadership has repeatedly attempted to block Mr. Obama’s actions simply because they were Mr. Obama’s. This included promising to block certain appointments before even finding out who the nominee was. We shouldn’t do that.
I am not advocating blocking Mr. Ebell because Mr. Trump may nominate him but because Mr. Ebell is a climate denier and thus unfit for the job. Barring action from the Electoral College, Mr. Trump will be President, and thus will have to appoint someone to head the EPA. The EPA needs a head. We gain nothing whatever from preventing the president–any president–from doing his or her job. But it is our job to make sure the president’s duties are executed in a sane, legal way, and that includes retaining a functional EPA capable of doing something about climate change.