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Wonkology: Blue Slip (Senate)

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December 20, 2017

An informal Senate courtesy by which senators signal approval for home state judicial nominees prior to consideration by the Judiciary Committee.

Blue's Clues

The term "blue slip" has a different meaning in the House and Senate. A blue slip in the House indicates the Senate's failure to adhere to the House's constitutional revenue origination authority. A blue slip in the Senate relates to its advice and consent process for judicial nominees. In addition to the confirmation of executive branch officials and Supreme Court nominees, the Senate must also approve a president’s nominees to federal district and circuit courts. Presidents customarily consider nominees recommended by the nominee's home state senators. This courtesy also extends to the Senate Judiciary Committee process, when deference is typically given to home state senators.

Tangled Up in Blue

In 1917, Senator Thomas Hardwick (D-GA) first objected to a nominee put forward by President Woodrow Wilson by registering his opposition to the nominee on a blue sheet of paper. A century later, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee still sends a blue form to the home state senators of judicial nominees. Either senator, regardless of party, can signal their support by returning the form or their opposition by withholding the form.

Though committee chairs in the 20th century gave great weight to blue slips, not all chairs honored the courtesy. In the 21st century, honoring blue slips has become customary, and a home state senator withholding support can result in the derailment of a nominee's consideration. When serving as committee chair during the Obama Administration, both Senators Leahy (D-VT) and Grassley (R-IA) did not proceed with judicial nominees unless both home state senators returned blue slips.

Blue Christmas

Last month, current Judiciary Committee Chair Grassley (R-IA) announced that he would hold hearings for two of President Trump's nominees without the return of blue slips from their respective home state senators. Senator Franken (D-MN) refused to return his blue slip for one nominee, and Senator Kennedy (R-LA) did not affirmatively return his blue slip for the other, instead writing in "undecided." Democrats have argued that Grassley's action bucks Senate tradition and further degrades the process for the approval of judges. Neither party has clean hands when it comes to changing Senate customs on judicial nominees: former Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) removed the use of the filibuster for lower-court nominees, and current Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) did the same with Supreme Court nominees earlier this year.

Happy Holidays from Thompson Coburn Lobbying & Policy!