Gender, Credibility, and Politics: The Senate Nomination Hearings of Cabinet Secretaries-Designate, 1975 to 1993

By Borrelli, Maryanne | Political Research Quarterly, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Gender, Credibility, and Politics: The Senate Nomination Hearings of Cabinet Secretaries-Designate, 1975 to 1993


Borrelli, Maryanne, Political Research Quarterly


This article demonstrates that men Senators use the confirmation hearings of Cabinet Secretaries-designate to investigate nominees' understanding of the political norms governing legislative - presidential - departmental relations. The status of the Secretary-designate as a Washington insider or outsider therefore affects the confirmation hearing, outsiders being presumed to lack the requisite socialization and consequently being viewed as less credible. In particular, women Secretaries-designate are more often treated as outsiders (their political experience notwithstanding) and thus encounter distinctive challenges in establishing their credibility before the confirmation (later, authorization) committees. The credentialling of Secretaries-designate through the confirmation process gives men Senators extraordinary control over institutional developments within the national executive branch: Legislators can delegitimize a nominee's distinctive insights, thereby structuring the political agenda at its most preliminary stage and ensuring that change will be strictly incremental.

The constitutional requirement that presidential appointments be approved by the Senate was intended to ensure the good character and competence of executive officers. Senators have duly questioned nominees regarding potential conflicts of interest and have assessed their policy expertise. Senators have also used the confirmation process, and most especially the confirmation hearings, to oversee the departments and to advance their constituents' interests (Mackenzie 1981).

Socializing the presidential appointee to legislative-presidential politics is, however, the most significant confirmation task. Typically conducted by a nominee's Senate authorization committee, confirmation hearings are the public inauguration of an important and on-going relationship (Deering 1987). This is the nominee's formal introduction to the network in which he or she will mediate conflicting pressures for increasingly scarce resources. It is therefore entirely comprehensible that Senators would be attentive to appointees' professional credentials, programmatic priorities, and partisan ideology. But Senators are also and even more fundamentally concerned with each nominee's acceptance and practice of existent political folkways. In every hearing, Senators carefully establish that the new policymaker shares their understanding of how decisions are to be made and implemented.

Confirmation hearings could therefore be expected to progress differently for nominees with and without experience in Washington politics. A Cabinet Secretary-designate with service in the Congress or in the executive branch would presumably be viewed by Senate committee members as well-versed in Washington's political norms. The "rules of the game" having been mutually acknowledged, this hearing would progress rapidly to a discussion of policies and programs. A Secretary-designate untried in national office, however, would be more cautiously received by Senate committee members. These nominees would need to be legitimized before the committee, whose members would also be more concerned to examine and instruct the "outsider." The first hypothesis, then, is that Senators place greater confidence in presidential appointees who are Washington "insiders" and less confidence in presidential appointees who are Washington "outsiders."

Yet there is also a literature which indicates that men and women, independent of their professional qualifications, are routinely accorded differing degrees of credibility. Scholars have, in fact, shown that judgments of character and performance are often affected by gender stereotypes. An experimental study, for example, demonstrated that women attorneys were granted less credibility than were men attorneys (Hodgson and Pryor 1984). An ethnographic study found that women victims of crime were seldom judged believable witnesses (Stanko 1982). In these instances, as in various others, the observer's gender role socialization caused him or her to discount the woman's qualifications: A woman could not be reliable because women were presumptively passive, dependent, sexually unpredictable, and emotional. …

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Gender, Credibility, and Politics: The Senate Nomination Hearings of Cabinet Secretaries-Designate, 1975 to 1993
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